Tag Archives: Book Reviews

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

A Love Story Framed Within a House of Horror – House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

It is a curious thing to have a chat with a book store manager who is ardently recommending a book to a customer. I was such a lucky customer, and upon browsing the book being recommended to me, I was amazed to see the text artfully laid out on the creamy pages. Mirrored text, inverted text, scattered text, text grouped in tight squares, text running at the bottom of the page, and text forming circles. This is what I came to know later as an example of ergodic literature.

It is a curious thing to see a single word printed in a different color. House, haus, maison, domus are all rendered in blue. Further scanning revealed footnotes on footnotes, extensive appendices, full-color collages, and index. I was sold, so to speak, but I didn’t manage to read this book after two years.

House of Leaves (2000) is popularly known as a terrifying story about a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. That is only one layer of narrative because that surface story is just as expansive as the story that happens outside of it, which is definitely bigger. Such stories upon stories, I feel, demand to be read with a support group. To be blunt about it, there are three main story arcs:

  • The Navidson Record, a documentary film that deals with the aforementioned house and the family that inhabits,
  • The story of Zampano, a writer who, upon his death, leaves behind the manuscript of an academic and critical study of The Navidson Record, and
  • The story of Johnny Truant, a tattoo shop employee who stumbles upon the aforementioned manuscript.

There are many references and parallelisms with the myth of the Minotaur and his labyrinth, which one might find really interesting. The Minotaur references are supposed to be not there, according to Johnny Truant, but even if the text about it were successfully removed, one would still detect them.

The narrative style depends on which text the reader is on. The Navidson Record reads like an expository report. It presents a lot of details that one might feel are irrelevant until the thesis is presented. An example is a discussion on the physics of sound. How fast does sound travel? How soon is an echo created? How far is the source of an echo once it reaches the ears? Once the formulas and the factors are presented, the reader, as a parent, will realize the horror of hearing his or her own children’s echoing voices, who are just playing at a seemingly nearby part of the house.

Additional story arcs are left for the readers for their own theories, which are best discussed with a support group. Although this book can be read alone like any other book, the urge to discuss this after is going to start aching, an ache that demands to be soothed with the balm of a book discussion.

The artistry of the text’s layout may strike the distrusting reader as gimmicky and pretentious, but this has its purpose. It serves as the cinematography of the book, creating images in the reader’s head and an illusion for the eyes. To illustrate, some text is cramped in a tight square at the center of the page, a square that gets smaller and smaller as the character crawls through a tunnel that gets smaller and smaller until he is squirming through it on his belly. This creates not only an illusory tunnel but a feeling akin to claustrophobia.

Another example is that as the characters get lost, the text runs on the top, bottom, or edges of the page, with footnotes jumping at each other, thus making the reader just as lost as the characters in this labyrinthine reading. One may dismiss it as drivel, but it does work.

The not Kindle-friendly design demands some skill from the publisher, but more skill is demanded from the author, Mark Z. Danielewski. It actually requires a different kind of talent and intellect to put together this seemingly mashed up pulp and let the reader make sense out of it. One is always on the lookout for any coded text, suspicious misspellings, or any winking clues that are left at various places. One wonders if this indeed is a début novel.

As if that task were not daunting yet challenging enough, there are the appendices, particularly The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters, which all seem to push the story further and shed a different light when the story is supposed to have ended. The truth is it all might not make any sense but the reader is still left wanting to untangle the reality from the fiction.

Perhaps the attempt to do so is the point of the book. My support group and I might not have the best theories, what with so many questions still left hanging in the air, but we are quite happy to at least have unspooled our own threads of thoughts.

I do not know anything about Art with a capital A. What I do know about is my art. Because it concerns me. I do not speak for others. So I do not speak for things which profess to speak for others. My art, however, speaks for me. It lights my way.

This is the art of reading this book. In the end, House of Leaves will continually be that horror book with the unconventional text layout, but one must not forget that at the core of it is the story of a couple, a couple named Will and Karen, trying to save their relationship as they delve so deep into their respective psychological houses, houses which reveal something about the guilt of success, the trauma of the past, the depression that is never suppressed, the fear that we don’t know exists, and the complexity of human nature.

[Read in June 2014.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]
[709 pages. Trade paperback. New.]
[Read with Kristel, Maria, and Monique.]

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

A Search for the Meaning of Life – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse (1927) tells the vacation of the Ramsays and their guests at the family’s summer house. There is really not much of plot summary to offer. It is two days divided by a decade concluding in a trip to the lighthouse. The absence of a surface plot is accounted by the rich interior lives of its characters: Lily Briscoe, Mr. Ramsay, and Mrs. Ramsay, the central character who held everyone together.

[Read in August 2011.]
[Reread in April and May 2014.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]

The characters are based on Virginia Woolf’s own parents. Woolf explained that she could not get over her mother who died when Woolf was thirteen. She set out to write this novel to lay down deep emotions, and this helped her to stop hearing and seeing her mother more often than not. In a particular perspective, it is an ode to her mother, but true to her original intentions, she wrote the novel with her ruminations on life and death.

A popular question discussed among the readers of this book is about its title. Why “To the Lighthouse”? Why not “The Lighthouse”? “To” implies a destination and a journey. Hence, “The Lighthouse” does not suffice because the novel is not merely about the place the characters will reach, which is a “tower, stark and straight” and “barred with black and white”. They embark on their own journeys in search for some meaning, some yearning, something that seems unattainable, like the lighthouse, always present in its nearly insurmountable distance.

The characters go through their respective journeys in the way that they know how, which depend on how they view life. Mr. Ramsay fears that all life is doomed to oblivion. Man may be able to work his way from A to Z. He may be able to produce the most illuminating scholarly works but even a stone would outlast his reputation. This frustrates him and explains most of his outbursts and the tensions among the family members, but there is Mrs. Ramsay, always there to offer the sympathy that he wants.

Mrs. Ramsay, however, does not care much for the future or for reputation. She values the present. She doesn’t want her children to grow old, she wants to make things as perfect as they are for the moment. She uses her gift in maintaining social harmony to meet this, to make moments last for as long as they could. She reads to her son James, she knits a stocking for the lighthouse keeper’s son, and she does so, she is observed by their house guest, the painter Lily Briscoe.

Lily Briscoe struggles with her artistry and the social conventions clashing against each other. The voice of a man repeatedly saying “Women can’t paint, women can’t write” drones like a bad headache. As if that were not enough, she can’t translate the fleeting visions that occur to her to paint and canvas. This would recur through the novel as she ponders on the purpose of art, wonders if art can truly keep a moment, marvels at the beauty of Mrs. Ramsay, and asks The Big Question:

What is the meaning of life? That was all–a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

An important section of the novel is Time Passes, the middle part that has all the ten years between the postponement of the lighthouse trip and the real trip. As opposed to first and last parts, both written with much detail on the consciousness of every character, Time Passes relates the years with a detachment that seems to say that the war, the lives, the deaths, everything in this world, are inconsequential. Time may stretch to great lengths during painting sessions, a lively dinner, or the moment before sleeping, but it may also compact everything the world has ever cared for in a matter of pages. This dual nature of time, clocking so fast or so slow, is portrayed in such lush language that it is impossible to not at least stop and think about your own ticking clock.

The journey for the little daily miracles in this novel is never a smooth sailing. Woolf’s expansive use of the stream of consciousness narrative, of which this novel is considered to be a landmark, threatens to deflect the reader from the flow of the characters’ thoughts. It is easy to go astray, to get lost, or to drown, but when the matches are struck, they are, you will see, such illuminations, such visions.

[198 pages. Trade paperback. New.]

A Death in the Family by James Agee

A Child’s Perception of Death – A Death in the Family by James Agee

A Death in the Family (1957) explores the bliss of marital life and the tragedy of death through the points of view of the surviving wife and the little children. The author, James Agee, is a self-doubting alcoholic with three wives and four children. He died of a heart attack inside a cab before he finished this autobiographical novel. He had worked on it for seven years. After his death, editor David McDowell wanted to help his surviving family. Hence, the novel was edited, published, and received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

[Read in May 2014.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]

It seems that the novel did not need a lot of editing. The simplicity of its beauty need not be marred by McDowell’s pen. There are parts that do not seem to fit within the plot and these were placed after each part of the novel in italics. It’s as if the editor didn’t want to lose these parts for their sheer lyrical power, so it would be better to let the readers experience them.

Rufus Follet, a sensitive boy not older than six, is the novel’s main protagonist. It is through his perceptions of his father’s death that we get the most compelling parts of the novel. What is it like to be dead? Why do people have to die? Where do people go after they die? These are some of the questions that he asks and processes with his innocence and little knowledge of the world. His mother, Mary Follet, explains the event to him with the help of religion. God has taken their father, Jay Follet, to heaven, and soon, they will all be together up there.

Such explanations are received with a child’s curiosity, one that leads to more questions that are more difficult to answer. Mary tries her best to help Rufus understand what is going on until she reaches the point of near vexation and uses her adult authority instead to put a finality to the child’s questionings. Rufus is left wondering what a concussion is and how to properly pronounce it, and he is a slightly disappointed that he cannot show his new cap to his father. Catherine, the three-year-old sister, asks Mary again why their father cannot come home. For Catherine, dead is something that doesn’t exist in the children’s universe.

With death comes religion. For Mary, religion is her balm to the overwhelming sadness that suddenly takes over her life. For some, religion is the answer to death-related questions. For others still, it is the bane of human reasoning. In discussing death, Agee allows the reader to reëxamine beliefs and faiths without the pomposity of a fanatic. It makes one read more slowly, to wonder and to muse.

There are raw emotions in this book. The first part of the novel is lovely in showing us the beginnings of a new family. Jay takes Rufus to a bar and prides himself in his boy’s ability to read at a young age. Jay asks Mary what she wants for her birthday. Jay drinks a little but sings his children to sleep when the nightmares descend upon their room:

And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful. Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn’t what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.

Jay Follet is a great man, and aren’t great men always taken away just a little too soon?

If, as a child, you have experienced such a death in your family, you will be amazed at how accurate Agee depicted the scenes. A child knows that there is something going on, that there is grief, that there is mourning, but what exactly are these? Why are the adults acting strangely? A child knows that a certain code of conduct must be followed during such an event, but why is it so important to accordingly? Why are they told off if they outside to play? A child knows when not to ask questions, but what are these adults talking about? What is the afterlife and what is a miracle?

This one is. Having read a novel that might not have made it to my shelf is nothing short of a miracle.

[318 pages. Mass market paperback. Secondhand.]

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Comic Books Aren’t Trash – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a novel that is set during the golden age of comic books. The eponymous heroes Kavalier and Clay team up to create their own series of comic books that features The Escapist, a superhero that has powers of escape and liberation. These superpowers are drawn from the creators’ own desires and fantasies to escape their own chains: Joe Kavalier wants to free his family in the Nazi-dominated Europe while Sammy Clay wants to free himself from the bigotry of the New York City of that decade. Written in a compelling language that manages both to be profound and geeky, this is one book that every comic book lover who has a knack for good writing should not miss.

Joe Kavalier meets his cousin Sammy Clay in the latter’s bedroom one night after he successfully escapes from Prague at the cusp of the WWII. This meeting allows the two to discover each other’s interest in magic tricks and drawing. Joe’s illustrating talent and Sam’s narrative gift allow them to convince the latter’s boss to invest on comics and introduce a new superhero to the already booming comic book history. With the boss’s nod, The Escapist is born.

And the adventures begin. But what else are borne out of this team up? What struggles and successes await the cousins? What does The Escapist mean to Kavalier and Clay? What are they escaping from?

The Escapist who reigned among the giants of the earth in 1941 was a different kind of man. He was serious, sometimes to a fault. His face was lean, his mouth set, and his eyes, through the holes in his head-scarf, were like cold iron rivets. Though the was strong, he was far from invulnerable. He could be knocked cold, bludgeoned, drowned, burned, beaten, shot. And his missions were just that–his business, fundamentally, was one of salvation. The early stories, for all their anti-fascist fisticuffs and screaming Stukas, are stories of orphans threatened, peasants abused, poor factory workers turned into slavering zombies by their arms-producer bosses. Even after the Escapist went to war, he spent as much time sticking up for the innocent victims of Europe as he spent as he did taking divots out of battleships with his fists. He shielded refugees and kept bombs from landing on babies. Whenever he busted a Nazi spy ring at work right here in the U.S.A. (the Saboteur’s, for example), he would deliver the speeches by which Sam Clay tried to help fight his cousin’s war, saying, for example, as he broke open yet another screw-nosed “armored mole” full of lunkish Germans who had been trying to dig under Fort Knox, “I wonder what that head-in-the-sand crowd of war ostriches would say if they could see this!” In his combination of earnestness, social conscience, and willingness to scrap, he was a perfect hero for 1941, as America went about the rumbling, laborious process of backing itself into a horrible war.

Every superhero has a tragic story hidden behind the mask or slipped under the tights. The novel, despite its lighthearted humor, does not forget to reveal this underlying tragedy. Joe, a survivor of the Holocaust, carries a deep remorse for merely surviving, as if it were a grave sin to survive. The Escapist, with his uppercuts connecting to the jaws of Joe’s illustrated version of Hitler, and his general anti-Nazi propaganda in his comic book battles and adventures, help him earn a lot of money, money which he puts away to take his family away from the impending war in Europe.

But it’s not enough. It is frustrating not to be able to get something when you have the money to pay for it. Not even The Escapist can help him and his family escape. So as a result of the rage that is built up within him and that is caused by the world events that the Jews are suffering from, he goes out attacking anything that is remotely German, which is something that almost leads him to self-destruction.

Sam, on the other hand, has to deal with his sexuality. He realizes that he is not like most men are, that he is someone whom people in those days would call a fairy. This slow realization is consummated at the height of his career not without the disdainful attitude of bigoted people towards homosexuals and the almost unbearable pain of letting go of a love that is deemed forbidden.

Appearances from various big men in the comic book industry are interspersed in the novel with gusto, and such stuff is something that will be relished by the comic book fan as if it were the definitive source of the industry’s history. The reader is also given some insight on the ins and outs of this industry, particularly the heydays that are often accompanied with the ruthlessness quietly unleashed by the big people behind it.

There is also the myth of the golem, an artifact created by a rabbi centuries ago that is believed to save the Jews from its oppressors. But will this giant made out of mud actually bring deliverance to the Jews from the Holocaust, or will it just remain forever hidden and send signals to people in distress to help them escape or, more importantly, find personal freedom?

There is geekdom. There is magic. There is artistry. There is pop culture and world history. There is fame and heartbreak. These are the amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Dates Read: March 3 to 12, 2012

No. of Pages: 639

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan

Serial Mysteries – Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan

Smaller and Smaller Circles is a mystery novel that revolves around two Jesuit priests, Father Gus Saenz and Father Jerome Lucero, investigating a series of killings at the Payatas dumpsite, a popular one in the Philippines. Having a background in forensic anthropology, the two priests are tapped by the men of the National Bureau of Investigation to assist them in capturing the killer who cleanly rips off the faces and hearts of preteen boys living at the dumpsite. Soon enough, the matter is put wholly into the priests’ hands. With the aid of the meddlesome yet resourceful reporter Joanna Bonifacio, the priests are able to find out who the serial killer is despite the inefficiency of the government’s main crime investigation body.

It was not without a little trepidation that I started this novel. I want to like it. In fact, I want to fall in love with it because it’s a popular contemporary novel by a fellow Filipino writer. It won a slew of awards and has gone on further to become both a best-selling and literary sensation. However, I am not into mystery-slash-crime novels.

I haven’t read a lot of novels branded as such. The only one that I can think of right now is Diane Hoh’s The Fever, a mystery about a teenage girl whose fever won’t die. That was eons ago. It was stashed in one of the cabinets at my grandma’s house. I don’t know who owns it but that doesn’t matter. I stumbled upon while I was looking for something, so I read it and I did so at a furious pace. Yeah, I enjoyed reading it. I mean, I was always amazed when the clues leading to the planned killing were found out by the main character mostly because I was a gullible and unsuspecting reader with no criminal instinct.

And after reading it, I put it back at the cabinet. It was fun, but it felt like munching on empty calories. Well, what did I expect? It was not supposed to teach me a Big Lesson about Life, right? It was just supposed to thrill and entertain me during those dog days at my grandma’s house. So yeah, after that, I didn’t go after mystery novels.

However, this is supposed to be different because it’s a literary-slash-mystery-slash-crime novel. The first page of my copy even has a quote from Nietzsche. Like whoa, I did not expect that, but I didn’t really bother to link it to the novel. I just read it, and yeah, I did so at a furious pace.

It’s depressing to read the papers or to watch the news. Everyday something bad happens–a bank gets robbed, a war breaks out, a child gets raped–and nobody can do anything about it. Not the police, not the press. Not the mothers and fathers, not the lawyers or the priests.

We are all powerless in the face of evil.

No, no, that’s not true. We are powerless while we wait for other people to act in our behalf.

Yes, that’s it. The truly powerful man is the man who stands alone.

The novel offers the murderer’s point-of-view in the first person, relating to the reader the thoughts that he or she has. The thoughts often juxtapose with the plot driven by the characters’ roundabout way of investigating, complete with the government officials’ bribery and the mass media’s sensationalist manner of reporting. Through these, one could glean that the murderer is just nearby. And maybe just after passing through the middle part of the novel, the identity of this murderer is revealed. So what’s the point? This is supposed to be a mystery novel and yet, why is the Big Mystery revealed at such an early point?

Perhaps that is not the point of the novel. A mystery novel that is so easy on giving away clues (yes, I detected them despite my being a gullible and unsuspecting reader) must have another mystery going on, no? Perhaps one of those mysteries is one of my shallow complaints: why do the main characters have to be Jesuit priests? Why can’t they be just merely forensic anthropologists? I find this part really pretentious (and I’ve been avoiding the use of this word) and really, nothing would have changed anyway whether they were priests or not.

Or perhaps the mystery is the NBI’s lack of resources to hunt down a serial killer. Really, that is not a mystery, but think about it: why two priests instead of a whole armada of policemen and NBI agents? Are there any known serial killings in the Philippines? Have they never experienced cracking down a case as this?

Or perhaps the mystery is how the reporter and the head investigator got to where they are. Why does the former have a lot of power over other people (and why could she speak four languages so fluently)? Why is the latter at such a position if he’s not fit for it?

Or perhaps the mystery is the serial killer’s past, who is both a murderer and a victim. Who is to be blamed for his or her end? The parents? The school? The thing that happened to the murderer when he or she was young? The society at large? The murderer alone?

Or perhaps the mystery is the source of evil in local society. Is it the luxurious lives of the Jesuit priests, or at least one of them? Is it the government’s lassitude and helplessness? Is it the media’s need for big scoops and ratings? Is it the vengeful heart of the murderer? Is it the squalid and dirty place where the victims live? Is it the place? Is it the people? Is it us?

And perhaps I should have given this the credit that it is due. This is a required reading in some local universities. However, just like the first mystery-slash-crime novel that I read, it felt to me like empty calories, although it is not at all empty. It is actually provocative, hence, all the questions posed above. But I am all too familiar with this circular way of crime-solving;  it’s something that I’ve seen vicariously, it’s something that I’ve indirectly experienced. And the whole thing is just not my cup of tea.

Dates Read: May 12 to 13, 2013

No. of Pages: 155

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars