Sunday, November 11, 2018

House of Leaves | Mark Danielewski

In an early letter dated February 14th, 1983, Pelafina Heather Liѐvre gives her son Johnny what can be considered objectively good advice for while he’s in the foster system: “Whatever you do, don’t despair. You are exceptional and require the company of the equally exceptional. Never feel compelled to accept less. Time will grant you a place. Time always does. Trust me” (589-590).

Perhaps advice hidden within a story hidden within a story (and so it goes), "Whatever you do, don't despair" is particularly apt for HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Danielewski. At its bones, the story follows The Navidson Record, a film made by photographer extraordinaire Will Navidson about a very strange house he moved into with his partner, Karen Green, and two young children, Chad and Daisy. 

Sometimes black hallways appear that don't make sense within the veritable dimensions of the house. Within these hallways is a growl. 

The Navidson story is told to us by Zampanò, an elderly man who wrote a comprehensive account of the film and performed detailed research around and about Navidson (and really anything to do with him). Zampanò's story is told to us by our narrator, a friend of Zampanò's neighbor who finds Zampanò's notes scattered about the latter's apartment post-mortem. 

If this sounds convoluted, it's because it is; HOUSE OF LEAVES feels like seven books at once and it twists and blackens and repeats itself and lists itself and turns itself inside out for your reading pleasure. There are appendixes and footnotes and footnotes for those appendixes and for those footnotes. You will twist this book and flip it and bookmark it until it is just scraps of colorful torn paper and you will not be able to put it down. It won't let you. I had to keep reading. You will have to keep reading.

In my graduate applications, I tell prospective MFA readers that I chase a Leftover Feeling in uncanny stories, an attraction to the unheimlich sparked by my American Gothic literature class. This is how I felt after HOUSE OF LEAVES. Beyond the extraneous bits that wind on and on and prove themselves not extraneous at all is the cold feeling of a lock clicking when no one is due to be home. Beyond the blank pages and drawings of a rope pulling up Reston's body out of the abyss of a house is a tightened chest or a huff of choked-back air or a vast, vast emptiness. 

Whatever you do, don't despair.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Exit West | Mohsin Hamid

Alas, my friends, the final Honors Read book review! Now, I must whittle down my chosen few to an even choosier few (I'm going to go ahead and say that yes, that's a phrase). Soon, just two books will remain in the stack, and then just one! The final pick is a bit of a wild card, a book that I've read twice before: once when I chose it as my Book of the Month, and once when it was required reading on my study abroad trip in London this past summer. 

EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid follows Nadia and Saeed as their country devolves into civil war, their streets fill with soldiers and refugees, and their relationships are put at risk by nearly every outside factor that counts. This is a book that takes place anywhere. (Everywhere? Nowhere? Perhaps it is all three at once.) It's a book categorized by its magical and placeless realism, and it would make an immensely interesting pick for the Honors Read. 

With 68,600+ ratings on Goodreads and over 9,300 reviews, EXIT WEST is a well-known-big-deal. It's gotten many, many an award and its author, Mohsin Hamid, is no breakout star. He's been acclaimed as far back as 2000 when his book MOTH SMOKE won the NYT Notable Book of the Year Award. Frankly, it's been quite difficult for me to find out what he's up to now and whether or not he would be interested in coming to the University to participate in some sort of moderated discussion/presentation about EXIT WEST. His website features a few tidbits from interviews in which he speaks about political crises and migration policy, and if I've found it correctly, his Twitter (featuring only two tweets) hasn't been updated in over two years. 

Readability ★★★★★

And onto categorical analysis we go! Let's be real, guys: college is immensely overwhelming and there's a fair chance that whichever book we decide to chuck at the freshmen is going to be left in a box of To College items that won't be touched until it's shoved in an SUV and then into a dorm room in late August. When the time comes for the Honors course material covering the book, many freshmen will scramble to read it quickly before the 20th/21st/22nd (when does school start? what is time?) rolls around. EXIT WEST is only 231 pages long in hardcover and it's so captivating from the get-go that I imagine anyone who gives it the time it deserves to get into its magical realism will have trouble putting it down. 

There's some mild, mild sexual innuendo but nothing stark or shield-your-eyes-honey-they're-taking-their-clothes-off type content. Consider this book extremely readable to an audience of first year undergraduate students. (And extremely readable to an audience of begrudging professors otherwise unwilling to step into anything labeled genre.)

Applicability ★★★★★

Another perfect score! How much more applicable can this book get? Not only can it appeal to those interested in history, Middle Eastern culture, international politics/relations, physics, inter-personal relationships and the dilution thereof, and societal shifts in normalcy, but this book will appeal to people who have never stepped foot in the realm of anything mildly fantastical. 

(I realize that at this point in the review, I haven't divulged what exactly makes this book fantastical, but I don't believe in hardcore spoilers and I don't think that they're necessary for good reviews. I'll tell you that there are doors that don't always work the way we think they would.)

As further evidence of direct relevance, some quotes featured on Hamid's website:

"Part of the great political crisis we face in the world today is a failure to imagine plausible desirable futures. We are surrounded by nostalgic visions, violently nostalgic visions. Fiction can imagine differently.... We certainly need it now. Because if we can’t imagine desirable futures for ourselves that stand a chance of actually coming to pass, our collective depression could well condemn humanity to a period of terrible savagery." New Yorker interview (EXIT WEST)

"I understand that people are afraid of migrants. If you're in a wealthy country, it's understandable that you might fear the arrival of lots of people from far away. But that fear is like racism: it's understandable, but it needs to be countered, diminished, resisted. People are going to move in vast numbers in the coming decades and centuries. Sea levels will rise, weather patterns will change, and billions will move. We need to figure out how to build a vision for this coming reality that isn't a disaster, that is humane and even inspiring." Lit Hub interview (EXIT WEST)

Transformation ★★★★★

Though this is no longer a veritable section of the requisite Honors College criteria, it's important to note how dynamic Saeed and Nadia are. We get glimpses of (unnamed/unshared) religious belief, of disparaging traditions that are contested by others, of relationships that do not survive the story in the way that we may hope. Forgive the following wild list of themes, but this book brings to light sexuality and friendship, the violence of external circumstances, and the humanity implicit in needing to protect people that you do not necessarily have the power to protect. 

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