A Writer at War, by Vasily Grossman, Part I

The public library I use just got in a big shipment of books--some of which are one's I've requested. So I've had to take a break from House of Leaves, so that I can get A Writer at War read during the two weeks I have it.

It's kind of a radical change to go from experimental fiction to a war diary. But I'm enjoying it a lot--I'm enjoying it so much that my engrossment in this book got commented on last night when I went out to eat by the host. :)

A Writer at War is basically the notebooks that Vasily Grossman kept while he was a war correspondent with Krasnaya Zvezda, the Red Army newspaper, with occasional comments from the editors to help explain the army slang and Russian culture. Grossman was with the Red Army from about a year before Stalingrad to 1945, when the army rolled into Berlin.

I knew a little about Eastern Front from my history classes, but as I read Grossman's notebooks I feel like I'm learning even more about what happened. Not only do you get an overview of what's going on on the entire front, but you also get vignettes and stories from the soldiers. Grossman also provides commentary about what he thinks about the war. And, even though it was very dangerous for him to do so, he was honest about what happened. (During the Russian retreats, Stalin and the Party didn't want people to write or even talk about what was really happening. Grossman quoted one of the newspapers to demonstate this point: "The much-battered enemy continued his cowardly advance" (11). If Grossman's notebooks had been found and read by the wrong people, he might have faced a visit from the NKVD.)

The best thing about reading Grossman's notebooks is that I feel like I'm getting the information straight from Grossman--it's not filtered or censored.


House of Leaves, Part III, Addenda

This just occured to me. A lot of the reviews I've gotten for this book (either personal recommendations or written ones on book web sites) say that this book is scary. The Wikipedia article called this book "an existential horror novel." But I have to say, I'm not that scared yet. I'm not even creeped out. I'm more interested in the labyrinth than anything else. See? This is what happens when books get too cerebral--you end up thinking rationally about the book and you can't get emotionally involved with it that much.

House of Leaves, Part III

I admit it, I had to cheat a little bit. I read Wikipedia's article on House of Leaves, just to get a better idea of what to expect from this book. I also read the linked Guardian interview with Danielewski from the Wikipedia article about the author. And I was comforted. As I read, and hit more and more complicated footnoting and narrative styles, I was starting to worry if I was smart enough for this book. I haven't read anything as closely and as analytically as House of Leaves demands since I got my bachelor's and I was starting to be afraid that I'd lost the knack of it.

Now, since reading the articles about the book, I'm starting to have the same thoughts I did when I was a literature undergrad. Namely, "This author may be too clever for his own good," and, "When are the little oddities really important and when are they just supplementary?"

This is not to say that I'm not enjoying the book. I am enjoying the challenge of it, but I think Danielewski--even though a lot of this book is meant as satire of academic criticism--is in constant danger of forgetting my first rule of fiction. My first rule basically boils down to: An author writes primarily for an audience and should never forget that that audience is paying for the pleasure of reading the author's books. Make books fun to read. There's all kinds of fun (even *gasp* intellectual fun), but don't lose sight of the fact that you, author, can see all of the connections because you put them there. Some of us are going to have to reread this sucker a couple of times to catch everything.

End mini-rant. :)

Having said all that, I really like the way that Danielewski plays with, well, everything that we've come to expect from fiction. I like all the little puzzles--even though sometimes they're so subtle that I miss them. And I really like that we have no reliable narrators and that we get to decide for ourselves what really happened. (Just as an aside, this is the same reason I liked The Egyptologist.) And I like the idea that this might all be the creation of Pelafina (see the Wikipedia article for House of Leaves for more information about this theory). I also enjoy the way that Danielewski played with the conventions of printing as well as the conventions of fiction. My mother is a printer and every time I see upside-down and backwards footnotes, embedded footnotes, and so on, I think of how tricky printing something like this book must have been. So, hurrah for the printers! :)


The New Fatwa

Today I saw this headline, "Bounty offered on cartoonists as protests rage," on the Reuters wire. One million dollars for the head of an idiot cartoonist?

And the hard part of this, where neither side is right or wrong, is that I feel somewhat obligated to defend the Danish morons who thought this was a good idea because I believe so strongly in freedom of speech. The bitch about defending that right is that, in order to protect that right, you have to extend it to people who create stuff like the prophet cartoons. In order that we all might say what we feel, we have to defend the right of others to express bad ideas.

I really enjoyed this article on Slate, "The case for mocking religion." In addition to making important points about freedom of speech, the author also writes:
"Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these."
People seem to have forgotten that most Danes, Americans, and other westerners are not Muslim and the rules and proscriptions of Islam don't apply to non-Muslims. The only thing that should curb our criticisms of Islam should be the respect that everyone should have for other religions.


House of Leaves, Part II

The footnotes in this book are deceptive. Ordinarily, footnotes are supplementary and secondary to the text they annotate. But not in House of Leaves. In House of Leaves, it often seems to me that there's more action in the footnotes than there is in the main text. I've only seen this happen once before, in The Well of Lost Plots, but there it was used for comic effect.

The only downside to lengthy and bizarre footnotes is that, by the time you get through them and find your place in the main text, it's often hard to pick up that plot thread again.

Having flipped through the book (though I haven't read any of it), it looks like this book is just going to get even stranger.


House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski, Part I

I first saw House of Leaves at a Waldenbooks a year or so ago, and was interested in all the typographical oddites in the book--there were pages that were typed upside down, letters scattered all over the pages, boxes of text inside the text, and footnotes that go on for pages. I was interested, but not enough to buy it. Then, last fall, when I went to a meeting of a book group with Russet Vixen, she told me more about the book and I got even more interested. But at the same time, I was half afraid to try and read it because Vixen told me that she got to the point where she could only read it during broad daylight. I normally don't read scary books because I don't like being scared--but Vixen sold the psychological side of it so well that I wanted to at least take a whack at reading the book.

So, here I am, three chapters in and it's like The Blair Witch Project crossed with The Amityville Horror, and written by Laurence Sterne. That's the only way I can describe it. The actual content of the book is divided in two parts. The first part is apparently a piece on nonfiction about a series of documentaries about a very disturbing house. The second part is interlaced with the first at consisted of lengthy annotations by the man who found the nonfiction part. It's not distracting (most of the time), but at times the book seems like its a race between the two parts to see who wigs out first.

While I am hooked enough that I want to continue, I am worried that I will freak me out to the point that I have to start reading light comedy to get back to normal like I did while I read The Stand.

We'll see what happens.


Brain Candy

Because of the homework load I am carrying right now, I felt the need to give my brain a break and reread some fun books--books that I call brain candy because I enjoy them, but don't have to think about them very much when I read them.

My current brain candy selections are the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich, which for some reason I decided to read from the end to the beginning (or when ever I decide to quit). What I love about these books is that, while they always have an interesting mystery to hang the plot on, it's the characters that draw me in. The characters are a lot of fun; they're original, they have snappy comebacks, and most of them aren't afraid to follow through on really bad ideas. Plus, there's the dumb luck factor. It's fun to watch Stephanie Forrest Gump her way through the mysteries. She's smart, but she's not Sherlock Holmes. Mostly, she's stubborn, has good instincts, and a lot of dumb luck that sees her through.

I also like the running jokes that run through these books. I have lost count of how many of Stephanie's cars have been bombed, burned, or wrecked one way or another. And her Grandmother's quest to see dead bodies at the funeral home, Uncle Sandor's great white whale of a Buick...