House of Leaves: A Novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, 4/5
This book is so bizarre that I’m tempted to refer to it as this “book,” as if quotation marks will somehow convey its reality- and genre-bending strangeness. Its core is an incredibly inventive transcription of a fictional documentary film, wrapped in layers of contrived academic interpretations which are communicated via endless footnotes and interspersed with the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of an unreliable narrator, all while periodically diverting to tedious appendices. This mental obstacle course of a book ranges in tone from academic analysis to B-horror and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say it manages to check off nearly every know narrative technique.
The more I tried to analyze and understand House of Leaves, the more useless it felt, as if a “point” did not exist outside of attempts to explain it. By confounding literary (and non-literary) genres and techniques, the author creates his own layered reality, a house in which a reader can easily become lost and confused while trying to determine what actually exists both inside and outside of the leaves (pages) of the book. The whole experience stimulated me to re-consider how my perceptions and expectations shape my sense of reality, and to acknowledge the extent to which interpretation can create meaning instead of just conveying it. All-in-all, reading this book was a uniquely frustrating and rewarding experience.
Why I read it: my sister, Anna, was recommended it by a friend and passed it along to me with a somewhat ambivalent review.
I don’t think I’d ever read a “Christian romance” before, but now I feel as if I’ve read every single one ever written. Almost everything about this book was cliched, from the handsome widower trying to escape his grief to the beautiful and independent female doctor who develops an immediate (and spoiler temporary) disliking for him. To be fair, the archetypes were intrinsically appealing, it was a lot less preachy than could be expected, and there were even some artistic touches: an insightful sentiment here and there, or a deft description. But ultimately, nothing could compensate for deficiencies of plot and characterization, which were contrived, worn-out and predictable all around. The plot was especially lame–a Nancy Drew take on National Treasure with some “Touched by an Angel” thrown in; however, as an antidote to my last read, Kafka, it was not entirely unwelcome.
[Why I read it: my brother’s mother-in-law thought I might enjoy it and thoughtfully gave me a copy. There was no dust cover, so I thought it was historical fiction…]
This substantial follow-up to the hilarious, brilliantly-structured Adventures in the Screen Trade focuses rather more on the trade and less on the adventures, a fact that will please those looking for practical insight into the realities and technicalities of screenwriting, but perhaps disappoint those looking for pure entertainment.
This book is packed with information, opinions and examples, but there are three basic concepts that remain with me most vividly a few days later:
1. Screenwriters should enter a scene (and by extension, the story) as late as possible. Scenes should generally be crafted to communicate as concisely and efficiently as possible, taking every opportunity to utilize context and subtext without wasting time on the page. I know this is probably the first thing you learn in Screenwriting 101, but it was a novel concept to me.
2. Directors are overvalued and writers are undervalued. Goldman is not unbiased on this point, of course, but there is a lot of evidence that directors often receive excessive, exclusive praise for aspects of a film that were almost entirely the result of someone else’s work. For example, a writer can create a powerful scene, specifying every detail from the timing to the camera angles, but once filmed, the scene becomes inextricably tied to the director. The example Goldman uses is the famous crop duster sequence in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. It is clear from the script that Hitchcock contributed almost nothing, creatively, to the scene, but what was the writer’s name? I certainly don’t remember.
3. Protect the spine at all costs. Goldman believes that every story has a spine–an irreducible core that should not be altered, no matter how much the surrounding details might change. I thought it was fascinating how, in his example, he boiled each vital part of a book down into one word, creating a short list of essential words that drive the story. His goal, when translating a book to film is to find and preserve the intent of the original material, which allows a great deal of latitude in how the peripheral aspects are treated. This idea will provide much food for future thought whenever I encounter films based successfully or, more likely, unsuccessfully on books.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed Goldman’s first book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, very much.]
Using simplistic diagrams and entertaining anecdotes, Kiyosaki preaches a financial message that is as appealing as it is suspiciously pat: don’t just work for money, make money work for you. By this, I gather that he means to focus on acquiring income-producing assets instead of the more traditional approach of focusing on increasing your salary, only to spend it on ever-growing liabilities and expenses such as taxes, a too-big house, or expensive junk. Additionally, Kiyosaki points out that it is the hardworking self-employed and 9-5 rat racers who are, unfairly, the ones most gouged by taxes (a point to which I can personally attest)–the passive income and strategically-formed corporations of the financially literate are much less susceptible to taxes.
That said, I am very suspicious (I could end the sentence there but I’ll continue) of the advice of someone who makes money partly by selling hyped-up books, games and seminars about making money. It seems that there is an inherent conflict of interest or, at least, an unhealthy circularity similar to a career adviser whose own career is giving career advice. However, Kiyosaki’s basic ideas seem sensible and I could imagine them successfully directing the energies of someone who has set their mind on working hard to become very rich. (Of course, this is the kind of person who would likely become wealthy with or without the help of this book.) People looking to get rich quick will be disappointed–Rich Dad Poor Dad is more philosophical than practically helpful. I think its main value is to provide some context and an engaging introduction to Kiyosaki’s financial strategies. I plan to read his other books, which will hopefully substantiate his claims with rather more technical information and fewer generalities.
[Why I read it: I think I read this once years and years ago, but it came up again recently because my brother is researching the idea of investing in rental properties and mentioned reading it.]