Weekly Reading List #4: Artistry, Masculinity, Lisbeth, And House Of Leaves

I knew there would eventually be a post in which this gif would be sadly relevant.

Last week was pretty shit, and I didn’t exactly have the energy to read a lot. But I still managed a few books, because without books, what is life?

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

I’ll keep this short because I’m planning to give this one a post all of its own (update: here it is), but in summary, it was absolutely excellent. I laughed out loud, I almost cried, I was moved and provoked and nudged into thinking deeply about things. The best kind of biography.

The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye by David Lagercrantz

The latest instalment in the Lisbeth Salander series, The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye didn’t do it for me as much as I’d expected. I enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s original books and liked The Girl In The Spider’s Web (Lagercrantz’s first book after taking over) even more. But this one fell short, though I’m not quite sure how. I think it felt a bit too much like Lagercrantz was milking Lisbeth’s childhood for the sake of keeping readers engaged. Sure, she has a compelling back story, but we’ve seen a lot of it at this point and I don’t think it would harm the series to have a couple of books focusing on something else.

If you’re a die-hard Lisbeth fan, you’ll read this anyway. If you’re not, though, then maybe go for Spider’s Web rather than this one. Or just skip it and wait for the next book.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Here is how I imagine this book came to be written.

Edgar Allan Poe married a Beat writer. (I know they didn’t live at the same time. This is fiction. Bite me.)

Both of them grew famous within their lifetimes and ended up rich. They had a son. The son was privately educated, showered with everything he could ever require and several more things besides, and heaped with all the privilege that could be expected of such a boy. His parents were a bit odd, but the oddness was mainly restricted to their writing, which they allowed him to read when he grew older.

Gradually the son decided he wanted to be a writer too. He took the influence of his parents and teamed it with the level of disdain for academia that an undergraduate gets when they’re convinced they know more than the professors. He mixed these up into a book, fucked around with fonts and styling to make it post-modern and edgy, and published it. Cue fan club of people from similar backgrounds.

This isn’t actually how the book came to be written, obviously, and I am undoubtedly wrong about several aspects of Danielewski’s upbringing, because I made them up. However, this is how it read to me.

I decided to read it because it had been pretty consistently recommended on Reddit as an unsettling, beautiful, unusual, haunting descent-into-madness allegory. I love those. The other thing that had been recommended so strongly was The Yellow Wallpaper, which I adored.

House of Leaves, however, is a horror story so unbelieveable that it feels silly. People on r/books kept saying they were into it, and that the story was deeply scary. It wasn’t. It’s about a haunted house. The house is essentially haunting itself, which I suppose is a twist on the traditional haunted-by-ghosts angle, but it’s still so unrealistic that I couldn’t bring myself to find it scary.

The book is made up of several storylines:

  • Zampano is an old blind man who dies alone in his flat. Among his effects are many notebooks and scribblings concerning a controversial film,
  • The Navidson Record, which is a home-shot documentary about a man and his family who move into the aforementioned haunted house. Zampano’s writings are picked up by
  • Johnny Truant, a young man whose mind is slipping away from him, much like
  • his mother’s did while she was locked in an asylum writing him letters.

The story jumps back and forth and round and round through the use of copious footnotes. Now I like a good footnote. It annoys me when footnotes are relegated to the back of the book. I read ’em all, usually. I read ’em all this time, too. But godamnit Danielewski makes the reader work. You’re twisting and turning the book around, trying to find the references and locate the next bit of the story. Sometimes there are three words per page for a while, sometimes the writing goes all outside the margins. It’s hard to read.

This would be OK if reading it were actually rewarding in some way. But it’s not. It reads like someone trying to be cool. Sometimes it’s cringeworthy in its desperation to (a) be liked and (b) be seen as the kind of book that doesn’t want to be liked. The “I’m too cool for you but I want you to recognise that I’m too cool for you and therefore feel inferior” type of book.

There were two bits I liked: the letters from Johnny’s mother in the mental hospital, and the bits about echoes. There were also some poems in the appendix that I thought were worth reading.

The rest of the book, though, not so much.

When I’d finished it I went back to Reddit to see if anyone else shared my view. Before buying it I’d just skimmed the comments because I was trying to avoid any spoilers, but now I read in more depth. And yes, there are people who dislike it. It seems like a Marmite kind of a book.

I can see how it has a cult following. I can also see how it has a cult following on Reddit specifically. I am on Reddit because I’m a bit of a stuck-up asshole at times, and my snobbish asshole self enjoys hanging out there and talking to other pedants who like to think we’re intelligent (more so than we actually are, undoubtedly).

So that’s my opinion of the book, overall: it’s for Redditors who fit the worst of the Reddit stereotypes. If you’re unfamiliar with Reddit, it’s a book that could have been written by the spoilt child of Poe and an unnamed Beat writer. If you’re unfamiliar with both of those concepts, you might like it if you hated university because you thought you were better than everyone else, including the lecturers.

If you’re very much into post-modernity just for the hell of it, or if you enjoy making fun of other people to make yourself feel superior, you’ll definitely like it. If you’re into thinking hard (though not necessarily deeply) and following several storylines, and having to physically work in order to read a book, you’ll probably like it. If you want to read a book because you think it’ll make you sound clever, this one fits the bill, though good luck getting through the whole thing.

Other than that, I’d give it a miss.

An Artist’s Handbook: Materials And Techniques by Margaret Krug

This is Jack.
Jack is an asshole.
Sometimes Jack appears in my nightmares.

I like to draw my nightmares because it makes them seem less terrifying and helps me shake them off. In this particular one, for example, once I’d drawn Jack I realised he looked sad. And while sad people can of course be assholes too, it reminded me that the concept of Jack does not need to be as scary as the nightmares like to pretend.

However, as we can also see from the picture, I am by no stretch of the imagination an accomplished artist. Nor do I aspire to be one, but I would like to be a bit better at drawing what I want to represent. So last time I was in Cass Art stocking up on charcoals, I bought this book:

It gives a pretty comprehensive view of art history, from cave paintings to post-modernity, and talks a lot about the equipment required to begin drawing or painting. Krug differentiates between the things you actually need (i.e. if you’re going to draw something in pencil, you’ll need a pencil and paper) and the things you might want when you get better at drawing (i.e. various types of paper and which ones are better for which tasks).

It’s a little lighter on the technique side of things, which was slightly disappointing because that’s what I wanted to learn more about. There are exercises to follow, but a lot of them are along the lines of “Draw what you see.” I appreciate that this is good advice, because I’ve heard it many times from many artists, but sometimes if you’re not a naturally gifted artist you want something a little more concrete.

For example, I seem to be bad at moving my hand in the right way to make the drawing appear how I want it to. Probably this just means I’m unusually terrible at art and could use either intensive one-on-one tuition or just giving up entirely, but I refuse to believe I’m the only one with this problem. I can look at a thing, and draw the thing as I’m seeing it, and yet still somehow what I’m seeing doesn’t appear on the page like I want it to. Perhaps it’s just a case of practice makes perfect. Or in my case, practice eventually makes adequate? Hopefully?

In the meantime, however, I will continue to inadequately draw my nightmares because I find it therapeutic and, strangely, fun.

The Slow Down Diet by Marc David

I can’t remember why I bought this book, but I think it was because I was shopping for something else and it came as a cheap add-on.

I like the idea of slowing down – I’m having quite a slowing-down year, albeit inadvertently – and I also like the idea of appreciating things and thinking about them while I’m doing them, rather than just mindlessly acting. I’m also fat and I’d like not to be. It was probably the combination of all these things that made me buy this book.

I haven’t followed the program or done the exercises yet, because right now I can barely eat anything due to my internal organs trying to kill me (which will probably solve the fat thing by itself eventually), but I read through it to see if it seemed like it’d be worth doing.

In summary… hmmm.

Bits of it make a lot of sense. The idea that eating while you’re stressed might make your body not digest things properly seems like common sense when you think about it. There are various case studies of people David has helped to lose weight and generally feel better by encouraging them to eat more slowly and in a more relaxed way. I suppose it’s a bit like French Women Don’t Get Fat (an excellent book) in its goal: to make people nourish themselves thoughtfully, rather than snarfing down whatever’s closest, quickest and cheapest.

The Good:

It doesn’t make you feel bad about eating anything at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s not one of those books that’ll tell you not to eat pizza, or never to have a burger, or to count calories, or that you can’t eat an entire chocolate gateau in the bath. It’ll tell you you can do all of those things, as long as you’re doing them consciously. Taking your time over them. Of course this ultimately seems to have the effect of making people not eat many pizzas, burgers or chocolate gateaux anyway, but the point is that you’re not made to feel guilty for eating anything. This is a nice break from most diet books.

The Bad: 

I’m not convinced by the science. There’s a lot of “scientists say…” and “research has shown…” without hard evidence backing it up. Which scientists? Scientists are people too, ergo some of them are morons.

It reads like a self-help book, which it is, but that slightly puts me off because I find a lot of self-help books are over-generalised and kind of annoying. Case in point: this heading, which made me want to puke:


In summary, I think that like a lot of these sorts of books there are probably bits that are worth taking on board and other bits that are pure crap. I might do some of the exercises when I’m well enough to eat like a normal person again, though I will definitely skip the ‘metabolic power of the sacred’ because it makes me want to vomit, which kind of defeats the point of the book.

If and when I do follow the exercises, I will let you know whether it has any physical effects, and whether I suddenly become a convert to the metabolic power of the sacred. I doubt it though.


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