Thursday, January 28, 2010

"The Cults of the Famous and the Dead"

Todd submitted this article in response to two recent novels about men out of place in the modern world. He fears the Internet and disavows new technologies; follow him on Twitter! To contribute a review or other literary musings to Attic Salt, e-mail


I finally got around to Audrey Niffenegger’s oft-recommended The Time Traveler’s Wife this week. By coincidence, this immediately followed the new Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed, making two-in-a-row post-White Noise novels about the effects of debilitating disease on otherwise loving and fruitful marriages. What I’m left with is that Ferris knows his pathos, while The Time Traveler’s Wife gets added to the list of wildly popular entertainments that make me feel like I’m living alone in a nation of people speaking a different language.

What do people see in The Time Traveler’s Wife? I’d love to know. Is it the sense of accomplishment at getting through a 500-plus-page book that spells everything out in the first 50? Is it the on-the-nose statement of themes? Niffenegger treats book-club hot topics such as “free will v. predestination” and “true love v. adversity” with all the nuance and subtlety of a slasher flick serial killer opening wounds with a large kitchen knife. “…sometimes you tell me something and I feel like the future is already there, you know?” muses the 13-year-old Clare to the 36-year-old Henry, her future husband, early in the book. “Like my future has happened in the past and I can’t do anything about it.” Henry replies, “That’s called determinism. It haunts my dreams.” Much later, when adult Clare has taken up painting pictures of birds in cages, Henry wins the lottery for her. Hooey.

In Niffenegger’s unwillingness to toy with her “chrono-impairment” premise, she sets up an internal logic where the entire story is laid out in the first 50 pages of the book. She uses the rest of her ink telling you things you already know, throwing around dramatic miscarriages that are all the more unbearable for the knowledge that Henry and Clare will, in fact, have a beautiful, perfect, time-traveling daughter. This is a love story wrought with tension but devoid of mystery or possibility. The dual narrators’ extreme angst is borne of a happy and loving relationship that actually lasts quite a bit longer than most (from Clare’s age 6 to age 82, at least). I fail to see anything interesting in this, especially when stretched over 500 sensationalist pages.

Niffenegger, presumably paid by the word, fills entire chapters with thinly-veiled semi-autobiographical indulgences. Step-by-step descriptions of Clare making fancy paper in her art studio regularly perforate the already-flimsy forward momentum of her story. Niffenegger also gives Clare her own hometown (South Haven, MI) and adopted home city (Chicago) to serve as the two major settings. The book regularly reads like a series of Yelp reviews, detailing “Clare’s” favorite restaurants, museums and clubs in the Chicagoland area: “The waitress arrives, and we hurriedly consult our menus. I don’t want to bicker in Katsu, my favorite sushi restaurant, a place we eat at a lot. I reflect that Henry is counting on this, in addition to the intrinsic happiness of sushi, to placate me. We order goma-ae, hijiki, futomaki, kappamaki, and an impressive array of raw things on rice rectangles.” It’s one of the more graceless attempts that I’ve read by an author to shoehorn irrelevant agendas into a fiction— the book will even give you directions to some of these places, and their owners all get thanked in the acknowledgments.

But if you want an example of successfully integrating the setting into the mood and character of a piece, go to Ferris, who used Chicago pretty decently in his first-person-plural debut, Then We Came To The End, and sets most of The Unnamed in and around New York City. The hero here is Tim Farnsworth, an over-worked lawyer who doesn’t spend enough time with his family anyway but spends even less when afflicted with an unheard-of illness that drives him to set off on compulsory, involuntary walks. His legs have minds of their own, and his disease is weird, hilarious, pitiful and impossible to diagnose or cure.

The Unnamed takes the right note from White Noise, the paranoia-fueled college campus of which mirrors the suburban upper-middle class malaise of Tim and his wife and daughter. Pre-apocalypse looms throughout the book; nature itself seems to be whispering in Tim’s ear that though he may feel alone, he is not. The city of New York is Tim’s comfort zone and he is often stricken to leave it, on foot, to nowhere and for no purpose.

You take these two afflictions at face value and they are pretty much the same thing:  Tim and Henry are forced to cope with implausible, unbelievable diseases that threaten to destroy their marriages. The compulsory walking and the compulsory time travel relentlessly destroy everything from their physical bodies to their emotional well-being. But even as Henry’s chrono-impairment is unlikely to ever strike in our real world, Tim’s walking takes on a fantastical quality that actually anchors the story in its dying-world setting. The phrase for this is “internal logic,” in which Ferris could give Niffenegger a lesson or two. The Unnamed feels like a more inventive fiction than a story about time travel, and then manages to strike at our very real heartstrings in the exact same way The Time Traveler’s Wife fails to. The threat to Tim’s marriage, sanity and body is palpable, the dénouement heartbreaking. The Unnamed is a fable of our times, dealing in personal disconnection, technophobia and globalization with a deep empathy. The Time Traveler’s Wife is just cheese, and Swiss at that, full of holes and short on ham.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Cover Candy: White Noise, by Don DeLillo

Penguin's 25th anniversary edition of Don DeLillo's White Noise, was published in December. I'm a fan of this book, which circumstances recently required me to read twice in a year. The cover art is by Michael Cho.

You can order a poster of the cover here, and you can also order a poster of Tony Millionaire's cover of Moby-Dick. I can imagine these hanging in my future apartment.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Review: Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

I pulled Ben Fountain's 2007 book Brief Encounters with Che Guevara off my bookshelf this week — I was looking for a volume of short stories to read, and I had read only the first, wonderful story, Near Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera, quite some time ago. The choice was a timely one, as Fountain has spent a great deal of time in Haiti and the earthquake-ravaged country factors into most of the eight stories in the book.

Fountain's treatment of Haiti is fascinating (he visited the country over two dozen times before writing the volume), and he writes in an essay in the back of the book that he conceived of Haiti as "the New World paradigm, ground zero for the confluence of forces that exploded with the coming of the Europeans. Empire, politics, power, economics, race, plus the more recent catalyst of environmental degradation… the sum total of five hundred years of complex history seemed to be coming to a boil in Haiti."

The dangerous, complex history of Haiti reaches its boiling point in stories like Rêve Haitien, in which an O.A.S. worker helps smuggle Haitian paintings out of the country, and Haitian traditions appear in The Good Ones Are Already Taken, when a soldier returns to America from a stint in Haiti to surprise his young wife with the news that he has also wed the voodoo goddess Erzulie.

Fountain also sets stories in Sierra Leone, where an aid worker gets involved with smuggling blood diamonds, and in Myanmar, where a Texas golf pro teaches generals how to golf and unwittingly helps facilitate deals between them and immoral businessmen. The final story, Fantasy for Eleven Fingers, written as a biographical essay, focuses on two European piano prodigies born with 11 fingers who are able to play a difficult piece. This story doesn't quite fit topically with the others, but Fountain's depiction of the pianists focuses on their outsider status, the same position that protagonists in the other stories hold.

In each of Fountain's stories, the protagonists are well-meaning, but often naive, men and women who end up ensconced in dangerous or seedy affairs but come out all right in the end. Fountain writes both sides of each conflict convincingly, offering insight into where both sides are coming from. While all of the stories are terrific, the ones depicting Haiti are the strongest, with Haitian politics, history, beliefs and culture all factoring in. Though the Haiti of today and the next several years may no longer resemble the Haiti in these stories, Fountain's work is a thoughtful and intelligent primer for those of us who know little about the country. It's also impeccably written, with long, beautiful sentences and unconventional metaphors. I'm eager to see what Fountain does next.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Attic Salt is on Twitter!

Attic Salt joined Twitter today, so head over to our page and "follow" us to get updates on literary news and links.

We're also following all manner of literary people, so check out the "following" list for new ideas of who to follow.

Cover Candy: The Portable Dorothy Parker

While I don't own any edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker, when I finally acquire one, it will be this copy, the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. The image is by Seth (Gregory Gallant), known for comic-book series Palooka-Ville.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Edgar Allen Poe!

Today is Edgar Allen Poe's birthday, and sadly the master of the macabre did not receive his customary roses and cognac in Baltimore this morning. The tradition, which has taken place since 1949, was broken when a visitor failed to appear with Poe's gift - he always arrived between midnight and 5:30 a.m. the morning of Poe's birthday, leaving the present on his grave. It's a story that fascinated lots of people, as the visitor's identity has never been known (though there was an apparent passing of the torch to the man's two sons when their father died in 1998).

To celebrate Poe today, read The Tell-Tale Heart, a very short story about a man who commits a murder, buries the body under the floorboards, and is haunted by the beating of the victim's heart. Cheery stuff.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In the Attic With Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier, most famous for Girl With a Pearl Earring, recently published her sixth novel, Remarkable Creatures, about two women who hunt for fossils on an English beach, in the States. The American author, who now lives in London, recently chatted with me via phone about her new book for an article in the Washington Post Express in advance of her speaking engagement at the US Navy Memorial tonight at 6:45. Below, an excerpt. Read the whole interview here.

What made you decide to tell the story of Mary Anning, a woman who collected fossils on an English beach?

I was interested in telling her story since I was surprised at how young she was when she made some of her discoveries. She was only 12 when she found the first complete specimen of an ichthyosaur. She was an uneducated, working-class girl who did things on instinct and had a good eye for finding things. ... Also, she was struck by lightning and survived. Accounts at the time said she had been very sickly and lethargic before and after she became lively and intelligent.

Were fossiis something you were interested in?

No, which is why it was so surprising for me that I had this idea. Fossils aren't something I would normally have gravitated toward, until I went to the dinosaur museum with my son, who was going through a dinosaur phase. Once I had a human face to put to the science, it made the science more interesting.

What do you enjoy about writing historical fiction?

I'm attracted to it because it gets me away from my contemporary life. I feel like I live it, so I don't need to write about it, and it's more interesting to write about things I don't know.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about a 19th century Quaker family who worked on the Underground Railroad in Ohio.

Previous Attic Salt interviews.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession

Julie Powell, the author of Julie and Julia, in which she cooked her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French cooking in a year and then blogged about it, is back with a new memoir, this one about her foray into learning butchery. Unfortunately, Cleaving is also about the collapse of Powell's marriage to the "devoted" Eric and her affair with the charming D, a story that she would have been better off not telling — though it gives her opportunities to use meat metaphors to explain the decline of her marriage.

Unlike Julie and Julia, which had a structure (one year, cooking through a single book) and a goal (finishing the book), Cleaving has no such structure, and no clear goal (other than making sense of her relationships and learning butchery) and the book suffers for it. In the first part of Cleaving, Powell works as an apprentice for six months at a butcher shop in upstate New York, learning the ins and outs of cutting up animals. In the second part, she travels to Brazil, Ukraine and Tanzania to ostensibly learn about their butchery traditions, but those only merit a mention — she devotes more time writing about making out with one of her guides in Tanzania and getting her BlackBerry stolen during an attempted rape.

What do Powell and the reader learn by the end of the book? That Powell may not have come to terms with her relationships by the end of the book, but that she has proven to be obsessive and crazy. She continues to contact D, even after he breaks things off, waiting outside his office building for an hour and a half to give him a present she bought while on vacation with Eric:
The Monday after we return from France, I pull my first actual, for-real stalking. I easily convince myself it's only fair, after I've tried for so long to reach him in all the more usual, less invasive ways. I warn him ahead of time, via text, that I'll be there, with a gift. I wait for an hour and a half outside the door of the building where he works. When he finally comes out, my face melts into a soppy smile that I can't prevent at the sight of him But he merely grimaces as if in pain and keeps walking...
Though Powell and Eric have remained together, despite a separation period, and still spend holidays together, Eric is having an affair of his own — though why he doesn't just leave Powell is difficult to understand — that is continuing at the end of Cleaving.

While some of the sections where Powell writes about butchery are interesting and entertaining, for the most part the subject matter is appalling — pages of wallowing over D, pointless recaps of her travels, trying to convince the reader and herself that Eric is actually important to her — and painful to get through. But the writing is also a travesty. Powell's book is disorganized, makes countless attempts to explain things through Buffy the Vampire Slayer (fine if you're a fan, but I've never seen the show, and it seems silly for so many of your life's philosophies to come from one TV show), and includes many, many juvenile jokes and asides. Reading Cleaving feels like leafing through a sexed-up adolescent's journal, which she abandoned writing halfway through and never intended anyone to read. Stick with Julie and Julia, which, if not the best-written memoir out there, at least has an admirable premise.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

In Elizabeth Gilbert's new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, she begins her narrative at just about the same point she starts Eat, Pray, Love — firmly against the idea of marriage — but the surrounding circumstances in each book couldn't be more different. In the first book she is at the end of a disastrous first marriage and about to embark on a trip around the world to get over it, while in Committed, she is happily coupled with a man she met on that trip, yet unwilling to marry him since they both suffered through nasty divorces. A wrench is thrown into their plan to live unwed and happily ever after when Felipe is detained at at the Dallas airport for not having a visa; the quickest way to obtain one, to the horror of both parties, is through marriage.

The couple decide to go for it, but have to wait nearly a year before they're allowed to do so. Unable to be in the U.S., they head to southeast Asia, where they have little to do and Gilbert has plenty of time to warm up to the idea of marrying again. To do this, she decides to interview people she meets and read books about the history of marriage, in order to take a more intellectual approach to the idea. This is where the book is interesting — learning about marriage customs of the Hmong people, or that in ancient Rome two men could legally wed is pretty fascinating stuff. So is the story of Gilbert's grandmother, who suffered from a cleft palate and was allowed to obtain an education, travel, and have a job, since her family did not think she would wed. Lo and behold, she did wed, but in doing so, she gave up her autonomy. That's a point that Gilbert makes again and again — marriage only seems to hurt women, in that they earn less money than single women, their life spans are shorter, etc. But for men, they only seem to benefit from marriage, living longer and earning more money than single men.

Gilbert's own story does not pack the punch that her experiences in Eat, Pray, Love did. Being forced to marry the love of her life does not have the same emotional resonance that suffering a terrible divorce and subsequent depression does, and her narrative is less compelling. In the first memoir, there are real questions that the reader wants Gilbert to answer — will she move on from her divorce? How does each leg of her trip benefit her? But here, the only question is whether Gilbert will marry, a question we never doubt will be answered "yes," even when Gilbert is outlining how terrible marriage is for women. The main plotline doesn't have needed tension, and these sections just come across as awkward. It's lucky for her, then, that she includes as much research as possible, and disseminates this information in an approachable, casual way.

Gilbert says at the beginning that this won't be another Eat, Pray, Love, but it's a book that she needed to write and get out of her system. While it's nice to see some closure for Gilbert, I can't imagine that Committed is going to be a popular choice for book clubs.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Review: The Post-Birthday World

The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver's 2007 "what-if" tale, hinges on a single moment in the life of children's book illustrator Irina McGovern. Irina, an American living in London with her long-time partner Lawrence, is spending an evening out with snooker star Ramsey Acton on his birthday when she's struck by an overwhelming desire to kiss him. From that point in the narrative, Irina's story is told in alternating chapters — one storyline in which she kisses Ramsey and the other in which she does not.

In the version in which Irina kisses Ramsey, she leaves Lawrence and embarks on the snooker circuit with the charming Ramsey, following him to tournaments all over the world and failing to get her illustration assignments in on time. The alternate story sees her remaining with Lawrence, a boring terrorism expert, and renewing her devotion to him. Set in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Princess Diana's death, September 11, and unrest in Northern Ireland all play in to the story, with different responses from Irina in each version.

The idea of a "what-if" story isn't anything new, but in telling the two possible outcomes of Irina's life, Shriver has written a jewel of a book with compelling characters and intricate plots. The alternating chapters feature many of the same events — such as Christmas in New York with Irina's domineering mother, a snooker tournament, and a literary awards ceremony — turned on their heads, and the same lines are often repeated, but different characters say them. Every major choice brings with it both good and bad consequences — in one version, Irina wins a major award, in the other she doesn't, in one version Ramsey wins a major tournament, in another he doesn't, and on and on. While we'll never know what could have happened if we chose something differently, and it's waste of time to consider the path we didn't take, it's to our benefit that Shriver decided to do that here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

2010 Reading Resolutions

Happy 2010, Attic Salt readers! I still have yet to formally write down my New Year's resolutions — maybe I should add "stop procrastinating" to the list — but I've also set some reading resolutions for the new year as well.

1. Read 50 books — I came close to 40 this year, and that was in a year where I was very slow getting started (I read one book the first two months of the year). 50 is nearly a book a week, but still gives some lee-way if I'm reading a particularly long book or am sick/on vacation/otherwise busy.

2. Read all six of Jane Austen's books — So far I have only read Emma, and after paying a visit last month to the Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York, I'm finally ready to read her six novels in order. I'd like to have some conversations about her novels on this blog, so if you'd like to join me, or have already read them and want to chime in, that would be lovely.

3. Read some of the books that have gone unread for years on my shelves — It's kind of embarrassing what percentage of my bookshelves are unread. This year, book-buying needs to slow down, as does my library-habit, while I finally read books like Sacred Games, Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides With Samuel Johnson and Light in August.

Does anyone else have any 2010 reading resolutions? Any books and/or authors you've decided that it's finally time to read?