Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cover Candy: Pride and Prejudice

I am an avid reader of many book blogs, including the Baltimore Sun's Read Street. A nice mix of local and national coverage, the blog also does a weekly book giveaway — Freebie Friday. I entered two weeks ago (the question is always "what are you reading?"), and won a new Penguin Classics edition of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, designed by by Coralie Bickford-Smith. The book arrived in the mail today - how pretty is it?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wednesday Poem: La Belle Dame Sans Merci, by John Keats

This poem was sent in by Liz, who writes "I love John Keats so much and I've always been obsessed with this particular piece. I had read it a million times and didn't look too deep into the 'alone and palely loitering' until my junior year of college when my professor Dr. Grieco told me La Belle was a vampire. Blew my mind." To send in your favorite poem, e-mail:

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful - a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery's song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said -
'I love thee true'.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed - Ah! woe betide! -
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill's side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dead Until Dark

Emmyjean contributed this post on Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris. To contribute a review or other literary musings to Attic Salt, e-mail


"'I have taken some night classes in psychology,' said Bill Compton, vampire."

This should give you an idea of what we're facing in Dead Until Dark, the first entry in Charlene Harris' Southern Vampire Mystery series.  Exposition so clunky it had me barking with laughter in public.  The incongruous pairing of would-be courtly language with present-day buzzwords.  And of course, vampires. Fucking vampires. 

When our grandchildren look back on the early 21st century mass cultural orgasm over vampires and ask us what that was all about, I'll have no good answer for them.  Sure, one could spin together a nice tale about fascination with vampires dating back to tales of Vlad the Impaler, told 'round a crackling Carpathian peasant's fire.  Bram Stoker would surely get a entry, trying to justify the vampire fascination as being part of a powerful literary tradition about the seductive power of evil.  

And then when I got to the Southern Vampire Mysteries, I'd blame them all on George W. Bush. 

This book, ostensibly about the collision between two exotic worlds, is in fact a celebration of their mutual mediocrity. Bon Temps, Louisiana is stuffed with unloveable losers.  There's our heroine Sookie, a waitress with few aspirations beyond sunbathing and slinging beers at Merlotte's. Her brother Jason is beautiful but proudly dumber than the sacks of asphalt he spreads as a road crew worker. Pity poor Arlene, beer slinger and single mother incapable of learning from her (many) encounters with bad men that she is not, in fact, an actual doormat. Sookie's lug of a friend from high school is still holding onto old football rivalries. Her Gran's old lady friends salivating over shared memories of the "Glorious War."  Even the vampires themselves, supposedly dripping in glamor and mystery, spend their nights at a bar in a Louisiana strip mall. Denizens of Bon Temps, undead or otherwise, aspire to nothing greater than their next beer or roll in the hay and/or coffin, yet they wear their stupidity, provincialism and prejudices as badges of pride. It's easy to imagine Sarah Palin referring to them as "real Americans." At least Twilight eventually sent its heroes to Italy. 

Speaking of Twilight and its feminist critiques, Dead Until Dark at least has the decency to grant our heroine a life outside of her vampire paramour.  Sookie may claim to be all boobs and no brains, but she is also a telepath (a "gift" or "curse" depending on the requirements of the scene).  That we would praise our narrator having experiences or thoughts outside of those immediately related to her boyfriend seems ridiculous, but in a post-Twilight world this makes her uniquely self-possessed.  Of course, it is Sookie's odd inability to read Bill's thoughts that draws her to him.  Because the key to a relationship is stony silences and unanswered questions. 

It bears mentioning that True Blood, the HBO series based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels, is everything the books want to be but fall short of. Cameras linger over titillating sex scenes that on the page cut away to a moonlit sky and wind in the trees; characters drawl with hilariously overdone Louisiana accents; the opening credits teem with images of Southern Gothic tropes like menacing Klan members and tent revivals. Where the Skinemax-inspired show prances about with tongue firmly in cheek, the amatuerish writing of its source material comes off as cut-rate fanfic. True Blood is lusty, campy, and in on the joke where Dead Until Dark remains, well, bloodless.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wednesday Poem: The City in the Sea, by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe died 200 years ago this month in Baltimore. He is currently enjoying many celebrations all across the Baltimore/D.C. region.To send in your favorite poem, e-mail:

The City in the Sea

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne

In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.

No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently —
Gleams up the pinnacles far and free —
Up domes — up spires — up kingly halls —
Up fanes — up Babylon-like walls —
Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers —
Up many and many a marvelous shrine
Whose wreathéd friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in the air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.

There open fanes and gaping graves
Yawn level with the luminous waves;
But not the riches there that lie
In each idol's diamond eye —
Not the gaily-jeweled dead
Tempt the waters from their bed;
For no ripples curl, alas!
Along that wilderness of glass —
No swellings tell that winds may be
Upon some far-off happier sea —
No heavings hint that winds have been
On seas less hideously serene.

But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave — there is a movement there!
As if the towers had thrust aside,
In slightly sinking, the dull tide —
As if their tops had feebly given
A void within the filmy Heaven.
The waves have now a redder glow —
The hours are breathing faint and low —
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Mysterious Benedict Society

Though the third book in the Mysterious Benedict Society series was released on October 6, I didn't hear of the books until late September while browsing at D.C.'s Kramerbooks. The cover of The Mysterious Benedict Society (2007) was a draw, as it, and the illustrations in the book, are done by Carson Ellis, who does artwork for the Decemberists.

I ordered the first book from the library shortly thereafter, and tore through it in a couple sittings. It's the story of a group of children who take a series of obscure tests to see if they qualify for "special opportunities." The four who pass end up at Mr. Benedict's house, where he briefs them on a secret mission in which they must go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened and expose evil.

That's all I'm going to say about the plot (and it's nothing you wouldn't learn from the blurb on the inside jacket), since this is a book you want to discover for yourself. It's witty and funny, scary and sad, clever and imaginative. Stewart has created characters that have forbears in other classic children's tales (The Boxcar Children, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Bobbsey Twins), but his world requires more mental gymnastics and derring do than in other books.

The Mysterious Benedict Society also resulted in one night's sleep and a nap in which my dreams involved complicated adventures and puzzles. I think that's an indication that I want to fall right into Mr. Benedict's world. I'm going to read a couple other books, then will be picking up The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (2008) and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma (2009).

Friday, October 16, 2009

Happy Birthday, Oscar Wilde!

I learned that today is Oscar Wilde's 155th birthday from my favorite e-mail service: Today in Literature. It's also Eugene O'Neill's birthday, and the day that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was published. Little tidbits like these arrive in my inbox daily by the time I wake up, giving me an opportunity to tell friends which literary figures share their birthdays.

I subscribed to the service well over a year ago, and have still managed to get it for free, but subscriptions run $25 a year. It seems well worth it to me, since you can learn plenty of invaluable information. Need to know what day Hart Crane hosted a party for Harry Crosby that was attended by E. E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley and Walker Evans? December 7. Or the day Theodore Roethke was hospitalized for a manic-depressive breakdown? November 12.

Subscribe here. And go read Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

National Novel Writing Month Kicks Off November 1

Last year I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and failed — I produced about a fifth of the required words before getting discouraged, quitting, and never looking at the terrible manuscript again. This year, convinced by my ability to stick with Infinite Jest over the whole summer (and even finish Infinite Summer a couple weeks early), I'm giving it another go.

NaNoWriMo takes place throughout November, and participants sign up to write a 50,000 word novel. It's supposed to be a completely rough draft and the focus is just on getting the words down on paper. There are writing parties held in cities all over the country, and organizers sent out encouraging emails.

So I'm going to start brainstorming ideas now. Do I write literary fiction or laughably bad chick lit? Adult novel or one for young adults? Blog readers, suggestions are most welcome.

Wednesday Poem: Having a Coke with You, By Frank O'Hara

This poem was sent in by Emily. To send in your favorite poem, e-mail:

Having a Coke with You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvellous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it

Monday, October 12, 2009

Favorite Fall Books: Pumpkin Moonshine, by Tasha Tudor

While most of the seasonal books I like are Christmas books, Tasha Tudor's 1938 book Pumpkin Moonshine is a perfectly wonderful autumn/Halloween book. In it, Sylvie Ann, who is visiting her grandparents on their farm, sets out in search of a pumpkin to carve and finds one of enormous size. She has to roll it down the hill to home, and the pumpkin takes off, with Sylvie Ann in pursuit.

Does anyone have any other favorite fall books?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wednesday Poem: For the Fog Horn When There Is No Fog, By Sarah Hannah

This poem was sent in by Lindsay. To send in your favorite poem, e-mail:

For the Fog Horn When There Is No Fog

Still sounding in full sun past the jetty,
While low tide waves lap trinkets at your feet,

And you skip across dried trident trails,
Fling weeds, and do not think of worry.

For the horn that blares although you call it stubborn,
In error, out of place. For the ridicule endured,

And the continuance.
You can count out your beloved - crustaceans -

Winking in spray, still breathing in the wake,
Beneath the hooking flights of gulls,

Through the horn's threnody.
Count them now among the moving. They are.

For weathervane and almanac, ephemeris and augur,
Blameless seer versed in bones, entrails, landed shells.

For everything that tries to counsel vigilance:
The surly sullen bell, before the going,

The warning that reiterates across
The water: there might someday be fog

(They will be lost), there might very well
Be fog someday, and you will have nothing

But remembrance, and you will have to learn
To be grateful.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Contribute to Attic Salt!

Thank you for all the wonderful feedback you've given me about Attic Salt. So far it's been a very rewarding project, but since so much of it hinges on books I'm reading, it's hard work — I can only read so many books a week.

So, if you've read something interesting recently, have some thoughts on literacy or reading, or have visited an interesting bookstore, (really anything about the printed word), write something! I'll take posts of any length and seriousness, so if you want to write something and send it to me (or if you want to query first), drop me a line at

Saturday, October 3, 2009

That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo's latest novel, That Old Cape Magic, published in August, doesn't quite have the magic that his 2002 book Empire Falls effortlessly exudes. Here we have the story of Jack Griffin, a screenwriter and professor in his late fifties, whose marriage is starting to disintegrate and who is haunted by his parents, one living and one dead (and rattling around in an urn in Jack's trunk).

The novel is based around two weddings, one of his daughter's childhood friend on Cape Cod, and his daughter's in Maine. Together they bookend a year in which Jack must deal with his failing marriage and his inability to move past his parents' problems. Jack's parents were also college professors, but they were unable to secure jobs at East Coast colleges and were instead exiled to a large university in the Midwest. They spend summers on the Cape, staying in a different town and different house each summer, always looking for something better.

That something better never comes, and they are never able to buy a property of their own. Jack's parents' marriage falls apart as well, and when Jack marries he keeps his wife and daughter away from his parents, who are snobby and pretentious. But his mother is also a firecracker.

Russo just doesn't seem to have it here. He's created his expected funny scenes, and a wide cast of characters that are for the most part endearing (especially Jack's parents, who save the book). He's also a lovely writer. But Jack is aggravating and the plot is predictable. The lessons Jack has to learn are obvious to us from the start, and when they finally hit Jack over the head, we're just as relieved that it's over.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Magician's Elephant

Kate DiCamillo's new book, The Magician's Elephant, which was published in early September by Candlewick Press, follows in the tradition of her other books in several ways. We see, as we've seen in at least one of her other books — The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Tale of Desperaux and Because of Winn-Dixie — animal characters, lonely children, understanding adults, an important journey and life lessons. We also see, as we've come to expect from DiCamillo, exquisitely wrought prose and a heart-rending tale.

The Magician's Elephant is about an orphan named Peter, who is being raised by an old soldier determined to have Peter follow in his footsteps. One day Peter learns that the sister he thought had died is actually alive, and a fortune teller instructs him to follow the elephant to find her.

Meanwhile, a magician attempting to summon flowers out of thin air summons an elephant instead. The elephant breaks a woman's legs, and the magician is thrown into prison.

The stories of Peter and the magician are interwoven with those of Adele, Peter's sister, the couple who live below Peter and the soldier, an hunched-over stonecutter, and others. In each of her books, DiCamillo creates a half dozen characters who would be worthy of books on their own. She does it again here — each story depends on the others, but is also wonderful in its own right.

DiCamillo is a marvelous storyteller, and an equally skilled writer. The Magician's Elephant may be a fable, but I think it's her most sophisticated work yet.