Science, Fiction, Life

Month: July 2016

Book Review: House of Leaves

I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to say about this book since I finished it yesterday afternoon. It defies a simple summary but I will try. I think a disjointed list of adjectives is a good place to start. House of Leaves is, at times:

  • Beautiful
  • Boring
  • Fascinating
  • Annoying
  • Weird
  • Pretentious
  • Experimental
  • Tedious
  • Creepy
  • Detailed
  • Impressive

For the uninitiated, House of Leaves is a novel that experiments wildly with the form, pushing the boundaries of what can even be considered a novel. The book consists of a core document, which is a dry academic literary analysis of a documentary called the Navidson Record, written by an old man named Zampano, and discovered and assembled into a single document after his death by a young man named Johnny Truant. The Navidson Record is a documentary (which may or may not actually exist) about a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist and his family, who move into an old house and discover that a closet door in the hallway opens up into an infinite, constantly changing, maddening labyrinth. In the footnotes of the main document, Johnny Truant writes his own story in long, rambling, increasingly insane passages, as he becomes more and more obsessed with House of Leaves and the impossible house described in the Navidson Record. In secondary footnotes to Johnny’s footnotes, his backstory is told obliquely in a series of letters written by his mother while she was in a mental institution, gradually spiraling into insanity.


As the book progresses, the text gradually disintegrates from a normally formatted page of text into bizarre chunks and strings and pieces of text that mimic the labyrinth of the house. Reading it, you often find yourself having to hold the book upside down or sideways or diagonally. Footnotes will send you on a wild goose chase through the multiple appendices. There’s a whole section of poetry in the back (much of it nonsensical, some of it quite good), as well as photographs (themselves depicting text scrawled onto notecards or scraps of burned paper). At one point, the pages of text have a sort of tunnel through them, revealing text on the following page. Entire sections are left blank or are struck out. The word House is always shown in blue.


This was a frustrating book for me. It’s clear the author can write well: there are moments of beautiful writing hidden in here, and there is some great symbolism running through the book, of the kind that engages the mind and makes me think that there is surely more beneath the surface that I wasn’t quite perceiving. But at the same time, as I said above, it is sometimes almost unreadable. The central document is written in an obnoxiously academic and exceedingly boring style, made all the more boring because it is a fictional parody of actual literary criticism, and it is a detailed analysis and critique of another fictional document (the Navidson Record), which may or may not even exist in the fictional world in which the literary criticism is taking place! I found my self falling asleep regularly while reading this.

It’s also an annoying book to read, because at times you need multiple bookmarks to keep track of where you are. Often footnotes will send you to some obscure appendix only to find that there is nothing there. Other times you’ll think you are near the end of a section, only to end up following a footnote to an entire separate section hidden in the appendix. Toward the beginning the experimental form of the book was fun and cute, but the novelty quickly wore off for me and I found myself rolling my eyes a lot. And speaking of rolling my eyes: this book is very pretentious. It wants very much to make sure you know exactly how clever it is being.


The thing about the experimental format of the book is that it disrupts the actual story lines in a way that (a) makes them seem bigger and more complex than they actually are, and (b) makes them harder to stay invested in. I was not particularly gripped by either Navidson or Johnny’s story. Johnny mostly talked about doing drugs and sleeping with a variety of beautiful women, and Navidson’s story can basically be summed up as “Men explore a giant labyrinth full of symbolism”.

I have seen people online say that this was one of the scariest books they had ever read. I’ll say flat out that I didn’t really find this book to be scary. There were a few rare moments that were slightly creepy, but even those were more of the “heh, cool” kind of creepy than the “yikes, I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight” sort.

On the flip side though, I have tremendous respect for the sheer amount of work that went into making such a convoluted and complicated book work. The attention to detail is amazing. There are a few sections with scientific detail about radioisotope dating and the age of the solar system and advanced analysis techniques that totally pass my sniff test. There are extensive citations to other documents, many of which are also fictional, but others which are not. And the editors, typesetters, and publisher deserve a medal for putting this book together.

And as I said, there are parts of the writing that are very good, and the layers of symbolism and meaning are masterfully woven through the disjointed and bizarre pieces of the book. Yeah, it’s obnoxious and pretentious at times, but it also, somehow, works.

Bottom line, although there are a lot of things about this book that were “not for me”, I am glad I read it, and I can recognize that it takes a certain sort of insane brilliance to write something like this. If you’re looking for something scary, you can do better than this, but it is certainly the most unique reading experience I can recall having, and I would recommend it to others just for that.

Orange is the New Black is the best show on TV

Yes, better than Game of Thrones. Those of you who know me and how much I enjoy Game of Thrones will recognize what it means for me to make a statement like that, but I just finished watching Season 4 of Orange is the New Black (OITNB) and it blew me away. Some shows are good at first but fizzle as they use up their source material and have to start inventing their own. OITNB is the exact opposite: Season 1 is easily the weakest because it tries to sort of follow the premise of the book that inspired the show. It focuses on Piper Chapman, the naive young white woman who finds herself in jail for transporting drug money a decade ago.  But it rapidly becomes clear that Chapman is actually the least interesting part of the show.

Each episode, in addition to the multiple different plot threads that are taking place in the present, we get to see the backstory of one of the inmates (and guards). What their life was like, and how they ended up in jail. Episode by episode, characters who at first are just bit parts or stereotypes or antagonists or the butts of jokes are fleshed out into real people. And it’s worth pointing out that most of the characters on this show are women of color. The show is unrivaled in its ability to focus on demographics that are usually neglected in TV and movies, and the ensemble cast is amazing.


By telling the stories of such a diverse group of characters, OITNB is also able to touch on a wide range of real world issues and transform them from something abstract into concrete, often emotionally wrenching stories. Here are a few of the issues that I can think of off the top of my head that the show touches upon:

  • Privatization of prisons
  • White privilege
  • Racism
  • Drug addiction
  • LGBT rights
  • Mental health
  • Rape and consent
  • Veterans issues
  • Liberal guilt
  • Police violence
  • Sexism
  • Freedom of religion
  • Employment for former convicts
  • Overly harsh sentencing for nonviolent crimes
  • etc.

What I really love is that while one or another of these issues might take center stage on any given episode, the other ones don’t just go away. This is a show that recognizes that in the real world, these things don’t happen in a vacuum. They are all interconnected, and that makes them that much harder to deal with.

With so many heavy issues, OITNB could easily veer into such a dark place as to become unwatchable. But instead, through possibly the most masterful use of comic relief I have ever seen, it manages to balance its dark and often depressing themes with moments of genuine laugh-out-loud humor. The show is often listed as a comedy, but I would not go that far. It’s primarily a drama. If you’re anything like me, watching this show will leave you emotionally devastated at times. But there is humor there too, in just the right amount.

Especially for someone like me with an interest in writing , OITNB is like a master class. I am seriously considering re-watching some episodes and taking notes. Each episode is crammed with multiple intertwining threads of story, with a host of amazing well-rounded diverse characters, touching on important real-world issues, while also managing to be truly entertaining. And the episodes together form excellent season-long story arcs with dramatic conclusions (and, of course, cliffhangers). I would say its only real weakness is that too many of the guards are pure villains, but even then there are other guards who are well-developed characters so it’s not just that all the men in the show are evil.

If you have not watched Orange is the New Black, I cannot recommend it enough. If you tried a few episodes and stopped, I would urge you to try to get to the second season, where the focus begins to shift away from Piper more. So far every season has been better than the last, and the fourth season was so phenomenally good that I want to grab random people by the shoulders and shake them and make them watch it. Since that would probably not go over very well, this blog post will have to do!


Big News: Baby on the Way!

This week, my wife and I posted some exciting news on Facebook, and it’s only fitting that I post it here as well (especially since the dogs were such good sports posing for the picture):


We are thrilled and terrified, which I think is basically the correct response. Since the adventure of becoming a dad and raising a son is going to be a major part of my life for the foreseeable future, you can expect to start seeing some posts about it here on the blog!



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