Monday, August 31, 2009

Shelf Candy: The Magician's Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo

I'm excited for Kate DiCamillo's new book, The Magician's Elephant, which will be released September 8. The cover is beautiful — it's illustrated by painter Yoko Tanaka. She didn't illustrate The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, my favorite of DiCamillo's books, but the covers are both beautiful and appear to glow.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers

While there may be many right times to read a certain book, there are also many wrong times as well. When I was back home this month, I came across the Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (2005), which I got over three years ago and has sat unread on my shelf ever since. I didn't bring it to D.C. with me, as I brought some other unread books, perhaps knowing instinctively that it was not yet the right time for me to read the book. It contains 23 conversations between writers and the writers they admire, some which were published in the Believer magazine (which I used to subscribe to), others which were previously unpublished.

But now was the right time, because if I had read it any sooner, I wouldn't have read books by some of the authors interviewed (Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Jamaica Kincaid), and I wouldn't have heard of many of the other writers mentioned in the interviews. I wouldn't have been contemplating/rethinking my job as a journalist, and wondering if it is really the best use to my abilities. I wouldn't have been writing fiction again and been able to benefit from the abundant advice that the writers inexplicitly offer in these pages. In short, if I read the book when I first got it, I wouldn't have gotten any semblance of what I got out of it when I read it this month.

This has happened before — with a number of "classic" books that I read in high school, (especially To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby), first readings proved underwhelming, while subsequent readings were enlightening. It also makes me wonder what other books I simply read at the wrong time. I hated A Confederacy of Dunces, but maybe I was just in a mercurial mood.

But back to Writers Talking to Writers. From John Banville being interviewed by Ben Ehrenreich on what qualifies as literature:
I suppose I would say that it must have a quality of the transcendent. I do not mean metaphysical transcendence, but a kind of heightening. In the work of art, the world is made for a moment radiant, more than itself while at the same time remaining absolutely, fundamentally, mundanely, utterly itself.
to Marilynne Robinson on Herman Melville's use of metaphor:
The method of Melville is just opening, opening, opening. He sees something, he transforms it metaphorically, he in a sense takes in from it what can be comprehended, what the fabric has allowed him, and then he feels the insufficiency of the thought. So the process begins again… One of the things that it does is make demands on language that language is almost uncannily capable of meeting, demands that are almost never made under any other circumstances.
and Robinson later on writers' abilities with characterization — "it comes nowhere near capturing the actual experience. When you are with somebody you love, that seems as it ought to be. But when they're absent from you, you are more aware of them because of their absence. Loss can create a more profound presence than presence itself,"

the interviewers/writers extract insightful thoughts and engage in wholly compelling discussions on literature and the act of writing.

But it's not all serious —we learn that James Salter laments the passing of an age ("I miss letters, ocean liners, New York when you could drive anywhere and park, and I miss the indifference that once existed toward popular culture"), that Joan Didion re-reads Joseph Conrad's Victory anytime she starts writing a novel, and that the same novel (which I have not read, but just bought this morning at Capitol Hill Books) "travels with" Shirley Hazzard.

I eat this stuff up — whenever I'm really taken with a work, I read as much about the author as I can — interviews, biographies, sometimes other works — because for me it grounds the book in such a way that I get much more out of it and develop a greater appreciation for what the author is doing. I'm glad I wasn't studying literature when new criticism was in vogue. The 2008 version mixes up the interviews, and includes one with David Foster Wallace, so I might have to track that one down.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Wednesday Poem: Nightclub, by Billy Collins


You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don't hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.

For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else's can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o'clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.

Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I was late to the game reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson's suspenseful and intricately plotted novel, since I just picked it up last week while searching for a vacation "beach book." I tore through it in a couple days, so it fit the bill, but it's also a multi-layered and intelligent read.

Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist just sentenced to prison for libel against a Swedish mogul when he's contacted by Henrik Vanger, who wants Blomkvist to solve the decades-old disappearance of his niece, Harriet. Lisbeth Salander is a twenty-something "punk prodigy" and private investigator who's hired by Vanger's lawyer to look into Blomkvist's background. Together (though they don't meet for hundreds of pages) they try to deduce what happened to Harriet — under the pretense of writing Vanger's autobiography — while also unraveling another family mystery that emerges and clearing Blomkvist's name in the libel case.

There's a lot going on, but Larsson has deftly interwoven the various threads of the plot while introducing two compelling characters. Blomkvist is at once serious about his work as a financial journalist — "he comes off a little like Practical Pig in the Three Little Pigs" — as he reveals corruption in the corporate world. But he's also a "big hit" with women and maintains a two-decade long relationship with his married editor, whose husband is fine with the arrangement. Blomkvist is a dashing hero, yet one who is cunning and vengeful at the same time.

His foil, Salander — she of the dragon tattoo — is even more compelling, yet more difficult to grasp. Larsson devotes pages over the course of the novel to physical descriptions of her ("a pale, anorexic young woman, who had hair as short as a fuse and a pierced nose and eyebrows… she was a natural red head, but she dyed her hair raven black. She looked as thought she had just emerged from a week long orgy with a gang of hard rockers.") and gives us back story, but she remains elusive.

The plot and the characters are in capable hands. Larsson's Sweden is a dark place, but one he elevates beyond the setting of a standard thriller. Blomkvist and Salander's working — and romantic — relationship is surprising, but it's an epic pairing. It's unfortunate that we can only see them in action a little bit more — Larsson, who died in 2004, left behind three manuscripts. His second, The Girl Who Played with Fire, was published in translation earlier this year (yesterday I was #75 on the waiting list at the library), and the third is forthcoming.

Monday, August 24, 2009


I reviewed Commencement, by J. Courtney Sullivan, for the Washington Blade last week. Go here to read it.

claim token 52JBR2EGHCTE

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Infinite Jest, 700 pages in

There's only one month and about 300 pages to go in Infinite Summer, the project to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest over the course of the summer. It's time for me to jump into the conversation and evaluate the first 700 pages or so of the novel, and determine how it stacks up against my expectations.

I hadn't read any DFW (this is how I refer to him in my head. As in, 'way to make this passage difficult, DFW,') before, but the book came with glowing recommendations from friends, and with the Infinite Summer support system in place, I figured, 'why not? It may eliminate the opportunity to read other books, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.'

Yet, in the two months I've been reading Infinite Jest, I've also read six other books. That's a testament to the novel's readability, for me at least. To stay on pace to finish the book by September 22, you have to read 75 pages a week, which has proven to be easy. I've been able to bang out 75 pages in one or two sittings, which is why I've been able to read other books as well.

Onto the book — with hundreds of characters and several major (and some minor) plot lines, Infinite Jest is masterfully plotted and pieced together. I imagine that DFW had a huge chart in his house showing relationships between characters and how plots connect:

There's the Enfield Tennis Academy plotline, which focuses on Hal Incandenza, a young tennis star. Hal's late father, James, started the Academy, and his mother, Avril, is an administrator there. Hal's older brother, Orin, is a star football punter, and the middle brother, Mario, is a seriously deformed, yet eternally cheerful, film nut. Mario takes after James, who was a filmmaker, and who made a film so entertaining that anyone who watches it is rendered unable to do anything else for the rest of his life (it's called either the Entertainment or samizdat).

This brings us to the second plotline — Infinite Jest, which was published in 1996, is set in a near future in which the North American countries have joined together into the Organization of North American Nations. But there are also Canadian resistance factions, one of which wants to get its hands on the master copy of the Entertainment to use as a weapon.

The third plotline is set at Ennet House, a halfway house for addicts. We've seen some overlaps between this plot and the other two, but I'm waiting for Don Gately, the hulking former resident-turned-employee to connect with the Enfield plot. DFW offers an insightful look into the world of addiction and recovery, and it's often heart-breaking.

Of the three plotlines, I find the Enfield plot the most compelling, mostly because of the Incandenza brothers. From Orin, who refers to his romantic conquests as "Subjects" and who imparts dating advice to Hal, who is scarred by Orin's oversharing ("he sort of feels like O.'s having enough acrobatic coitus for all three of them") to Mario, a loner because of his multiple deformities, who provides an outsider's perspective to an insider's world, the brothers are all funny and their interactions are great. But I'm consistently drawn to Mario, whose observations are frequently incisive and always interesting: "The inside of it smells like an ashtray, but Mario's felt good both times in Ennet's House because it's very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside."

The bulk of the plot (which skips around temporally), takes place after James' suicide, so we never learn much about him, except through his films and his relationships with others. We also (unfortunately) never learn much about Avril, (who is very tall and Canadian), who belongs to the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts, carries on an affair with a student, and did work at McGill on "the use of hyphens, dashes and colons in E. Dickinson" (so did I). Together they make one heck of a family, despite one that's kind of tragic.

70 percent of the way through, I'm enjoying Infinite Jest, but I think it's more out of admiration than sheer pleasure. A common complaint about the text is the 388 endnotes, some of which are pages in length. While I see that this is labor intensive and that some of the notes could have gone right in the regular text, some of the best stuff is found here — priceless conversations between Orin and Hal, for instance.

DFW has created a magnificent world, albeit one filled with troubled individuals, and I appreciate the intricately layered plot, and how he sometimes waits to reveal crucial points until the reader is thoroughly confused. Sometimes there's a "click" in my mind as pieces begin to come together and previous unseen connections emerge.

I'll have more to say in another month or so, when I finish Infinite Jest, on the notion of entertainment and how the plots ultimately come together — though I'm not even sure they will. I can't imagine that DFW will wrap things up neatly, and honestly, he doesn't need to.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Welcome to the Attic

Welcome to Attic Salt: A Literary Blog.

Attic Salt is an Athenian phrase that means elegant and delicate wit, according to the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. I'm hoping this site will be a place of elegant and witty conversation about books — that and I like the phrase, since it makes me think of a wise old sage, sitting in an attic surrounded by books.

After two years of blogging here about life in D.C., and three years of writing about restaurants and the arts for several publications, it's time to put fingers to keys and write about my first love.

After finishing my M.A. in literature in the spring of 2008, I spent about 9 months unable to read much of anything. I was burnt out (I went straight to grad school after getting my B.A. from Mount Holyoke), and only managed to get through a handful of books in that time. Some were notable (The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Emperor's Children), but few were memorable. After regaining my ability to tear through books earlier this year, I needed an outlet in which to write or talk about them.

While my interests are primarily contemporary literature (with occasional forays to the 19th century), non-fiction (mostly food memoirs and history) and children's books will appear here as well. Don't expect just reviews — anything literary is fair game, and this means libraries, bookstores, authors' homes, author interviews and reading culture.

Comments and suggestions are always welcome.