House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
I've had a copy of this book gathering dust in my living room for well over a year. I picked it up for a quick glance tonight, and suddenly, I'm 244 pages in. pic.twitter.com/yrlkm4jbcp— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) May 15, 2023
There are a handful of books that have been on my literary bucket list for years. This is one of them. I’ve had a copy of House of Leaves sitting on my living room floor by the TV for well over a year by the time I chose to read it (which is actually pretty speedy by my standards given how many books I own.) You can’t blame me for putting it off for so long. It’s a long book, one of intense typographical experimentation that, from the outside looking in, often seems utterly impenetrable. Much to my surprise, not only was House of Leaves a total blast, but it was actually remarkably accessible.
Read any list of the scariest or most disturbing books, and the chances are you’ll see House of Leaves pop up frequently (it appeared a number of times in the comments for our own post on the subject.) It’s the kind of novel that comes with a weighty reputation for its ability to unnerve. Taking the form of a semi-academic study of a potentially false event, the reader is invited to descend into a kind of madness alongside its reluctant narrator-slash-editor, Johnny Truant. He is working on a manuscript by a recently deceased blind man who wrote about a very strange house. Its residents, including a tortured war photographer and his wife, discover a door where there hadn’t been one before. Then it leads to a hallway, one that goes on and on forever. The house grows bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. Then it grows. And grows. Where do the paths go?
It would require far more time than I have to fully unravel House of Leaves. Its most ardent fans have been trying that for years and still have unanswered questions. For me, what I found most satisfying about my experience with it was in how it tricked the reader. So many of those typographical puzzles, the ones that attract and repel you in equal measure, are traps. You, like every character in the novel, become desperate for answers, and fall into a dizzying descent trying to find them. The book is a labyrinth, literally and figuratively, and the more you give of yourself, the more it demands. That sounds, frankly, insufferable, but it’s much easier to read than you’d think. It’s also far more fun because it’s clear that Danielewski is having a ball pulling people into this trap. He’s written other books in this fashion but House of Leaves still feels like a wholly unique entity, and I’m glad to have finally ticked it off my bucket list!
The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
The @FaberBooks Editions line has been incredible. All absolute gems. This one is no exception. A stark, fragmented, claustrophobic novel about post-partum psychosis and a woman's struggles in a bleak hospital. pic.twitter.com/B7T4foyCZB— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) May 22, 2023
Marthe Gail has been hospitalised. Her husband comes to visit but things aren’t right. He says they’ve just had a baby but she can’t remember. Sometimes, she thinks she’s God or Jesus Christ. The doctors tell her she’s had a breakdown but why would she trust them? They want her to get better, but from what?
Emily Coleman was a prolific writer who kept endless diaries that detailed her colourful and often difficult life. Yet she only wrote one novel, The Shutter of Snow, which recently received a gorgeous reissue from Faber. Short, spiky, and elegantly bleak, it was inspired by her own experiences with a postpartum infection and breakdown that left her hospitalised following the birth of her own child. The novel blends stream-of-consciousness with a surreal edge to fully capture a woman in the throes of mental illness. Marthe’s delusions blend with her memories, and her friendships within the hospital turn toxic at the drop of a dime. Yet there’s a strong feminist undercurrent at play here, with a women’s hospital run by male doctors who hold all the power and seem disdainful at times of their own patients’ needs. Together, the ‘mad women’ find a kind of community that offers, if not freedom, then much-needed solace. The Shutter of Snow feels like an accompaniment to more well-known books about women and mental illness such as The Yellow Wallpaper and The Bell Jar. It’s certainly as deserving of the acclaim those novels received.
The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell
This is interesting: less a biography of Monroe than a dissection of the public image of her disseminated through decades of other people's words on her. pic.twitter.com/Bh9Gf9A2nv— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) May 9, 2023
There’s never been a time over the past 60 years where Marilyn Monroe hasn’t captured our interest, but it does feel as though she’s been even more present in our imaginations recently. The release of the Andrew Dominik pseudo-biopic Blonde, and the firestorm of criticisms it inspired, brought the late actress into the spotlight once more. Like many a star who died before their time, Monroe has become the vessel for many of our contemporary concerns about gender, fame, sexuality, abuse, and so on. Even in life, she was viewed less as a complete person and more a blank canvas for a hell of a lot of creeps.
Professor Sarah Churchwell’s book isn’t a Monroe biography so much as it’s a study of how every other biographer has written about Monroe. For someone who has been obsessed over for decades, it’s startling how little we truly know about Marilyn, and how that was, in part, a deliberate choice from her and those around her. The studios obscured her past, both concealing its bleaker parts and spinning new tragedies to best sell Monroe to the masses. Her own husband used her as inspiration for his plays. Writers like Norman Mailer churned out poorly researched hit pieces for the money that quickly became gospel. Everyone has used Monroe as a means to an end, one that often seems to have very little to do with her life, talent, and views. Churchwell’s book carefully dissects this glut of coverage, in life and death, to show the appropriation and bastardizing of an icon. It’ll make you furious. And yes, Churchwell hated Joyce Carol Oates’ book.