Friday, April 30, 2010

Review: I Thought You Were Dead

It’s difficult for me not to take personally a book like Pete Nelson’s I Thought You Were Dead, a roman a clef set almost entirely in my hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts in 1998. This isn’t the first time Northampton has been featured in a popular entertainment; just this year, the action movie Edge of Darkness portrayed the quiet college town as a haven of terrorist activity (ha!) for Mel Gibson’s Boston police detective to uncover. Nelson’s portrait is remarkably close to my own reminiscence. When the novel’s protagonist, Paul, describes the teenagers bumming quarters and playing guitars on the unique sidewalks of my old stomping grounds, I find myself thinking, “I went to high school with those kids.” Paul eats breakfast at the same dim breakfast café I’ve frequented for my entire life and visit every time I go home.

The book is steeped in nostalgia for a time and place that I romanticize on a daily basis. Paul’s haunt is the Bay State, an old bar I’d always heard about but never got the chance to visit; it was renovated and transformed from dive to hotspot before I turned 21. As featured in Fountains of Wayne’s “Valley Winter Song,” I think of the Bay State as a fantasy home-away-from-home in a place I can no longer accurately call home. Nelson depicts the Bay State as a den of alcoholism and stunted growth but also a place where nobody will judge you, everybody will be your friend and everybody knows your name. The bartender, Silent Neil, hasn’t uttered a spoken word since Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. It’s lost in the past; it’s where you go to lose yourself in the past.

Paul is a struggling writer and serious alcoholic, hoarding nips in his suitcase from his flight to Minneapolis, where his father has been laid up in the hospital after a stroke. He’s a childless divorcé, the black sheep in his family and he openly shares his girlfriend with another man. The only rock in Paul’s life is Stella, who is half-German shepherd half-yellow lab. At sixteen, Stella is beloved and ancient.

When they’re alone together, Paul and Stella converse in spoken English. This sounds like a gimmick but it never reads like one: Stella is the novel’s anchor as much as she is Paul’s, and she might be the most honestly, realistically developed character in the book. Stella’s demeanor is a comforting mixture of the ceaseless loyalty and charming naivete of Up’s Dug and the dry maternal sass of someone like Susan Sarandon. Her dialogues with Paul function as a device for him to work out his problems but they’re also a matter-of-fact portrait of friendship and co-dependence. On the first page, as Paul returns home from the bar in the midst of a snowstorm, Stella says to him, “I thought you were dead.” It’s a foreboding statement but it also lays the concrete for their relationship. Stella is a protective force and a symbol of every best intention.

With his father nearly paralyzed from stroke and Stella unable to climb the front steps, the shadow of his divorce and professional failure are almost small potatoes to Paul. It’s easy to understand why he drinks. The story is a by-the-numbers redemption arc, but at a swift 250 pages it never feels self-indulgent. Rather, it feels non-fictional. It feels honest.

Inevitably, I think of a night I spent with my then-girlfriend in an animal hospital five years ago. Her dog, Lucky, was there under dire circumstances and wouldn’t make it to the next morning. In the waiting room of an emergency veterinary clinic late at night, you will find only sad faces, and two particularly stuck with me from that night. One was a muscular thirty-something man dressed in Carhartts and the other was my girlfriend’s father: both the strange and the familiar were red-faced pictures of deep masculinity wounded to the core by a dying puppy. I Thought You Were Dead is a story of the fragility of masculinity.

Paul has never felt quite “man” enough to meet the requirements of adult life: he’s consistently losing to his war veteran father, his successful lawyer brother, his ex-wife’s new fiancé, his new girlfriend’s other boyfriend. In the course of the novel he will break out of his inertia and achieve peace – this is the clear path from the start. Nelson’s great achievement, though, is not the ending but the course he takes to get there. Rather than build a false optimism for the future (he comes close), the concentration is on putting your demons to rest. A necessary first step.

Paul’s (and Pete’s) Northampton is a waiting room, a place where you can drown your sorrows (or soak them, at least, as Paul suggests at one point) but also where you’ll have the time, the space and the community you need to work your problems out. Northampton, like a great dog, has stuck by me and made me the man I am (or try to be) today; it seems to have done the same for Pete Nelson and his fictionalized alter-ego. And like a beautiful hometown, a great dog is going to stick with you long after terrible circumstance has pulled you apart. I Thought You Were Dead is a dirge, an ode to the hazy, drunken past. Or at least, that’s what it is to me.

Todd Detmold, a native of Northampton, Massachusetts, enjoys comfortable, stable relationships with his family, his loved ones and the bars of his beloved hometown. To contribute a review or other literary musings to Attic Salt, e-mail

Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 51-61 & Mansfield Park Kick-Off

The last ten chapters of Pride and Prejudice draw the Bennet family saga to a close. Lydia and Wickham come to visit and act like they did nothing wrong. Lydia is insufferable, but when she brags about her wedding, Elizabeth learns that Mr. Darcy was in attendance. Elizabeth writes to Mrs. Gardiner to find out what that was all about and her aunt tells her that Darcy was the one who found the runaway couple and who paid Wickham to marry Lydia. Bennet marriage count: 1. Darcy then arrives back at the Bennet estate in the company of Wickham, who pays the Bennets several visits before proposing to Jane. Bennet marriage count: 2.

Lady Catherine visits and asks Elizabeth if she is engaged to Darcy. Lady Catherine is appalled by the possibility and asks Elizabeth to promise not to marry Darcy, which Elizabeth refuses: "I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me." Rumors continue to fly about this potential marriage when Mr. Collins writes Mr. Bennet a letter indicating that an engagement is imminent. Mr. Bennet laughs it off — "[he] probably never looked at you in his life."

Shortly thereafter, Darcy appears and tells Elizabeth that his feelings are the same as they were when he first proposed and asks if her have changed. Elizabeth tells them they have, and that she will marry him. Elizabeth breaks the news to Jane, who can't believe it, and Darcy asks Mr. Bennet, who can't believe it. Everyone is thrilled, and the final chapter leaves things in a nice place: Bingley buys an estate near Darcy's, so the sisters are fairly close to each other and Kitty goes to spend time with her two sisters as the Bennets try to keep her away from Lydia, who remains a bad influence. Bennet marriage count: 3.

With this ending everyone is happy and has grown in some way: Darcy and Elizabeth have improved themselves significantly, learning lessons and growing as people. They're rewarded with a mutually fulfilling relationship. Jane and Bingley get what they have always deserved, and the Bennets are making strides towards correcting the defects of Kitty and Mary, the two unmarried sisters. Lady Catherine accepts Darcy's marriage as well.

But Lydia and Wickham don't learn anything from their behavior:
As for Wickham and Lydia, their characters suffered no revolution from the marriage of her sisters. He bore with philosophy the conviction that Elizabeth must now become acquainted with whatever of his ingratitude and falsehood had before been unknown to her; and in spite of every thing, was not wholly without hope that Darcy might yet be prevailed on to make his fortune.
Though their behavior doesn't change, and they ask Lydia's siblings for money regularly, Austen gives them their comeuppance: "His affection for her soon sunk into indifference; hers lasted a little longer; and in spite of her youth and her manners, she retained all the claims to reputation which her marriage had given her."

I said at the outset of reading this novel that what I "want to discover about Pride and Prejudice is whether it lives up to the hype. Is Austen's Elizabeth Bennet going to be just as dynamic as her on-screen portrayals? Is Mr. Darcy really the ultimate Austen hero?" I think it does. I told someone the other day that Pride and Prejudice improves on Sense and Sensibility in every way that novel needed improving: characters are more well-rounded, the main love relationship is explored more in depth, the writing is stronger, and we're given two main characters who truly work together.  I've requested the two film versions — the BBC mini-series and 2005 feature film — from the library, so I may share thoughts on those when I watch them. What did you all think of the book?

Meanwhile, tomorrow is May 1, so onward to Mansfield Park! I'm excited about this one as it's the first where I don't know the plot at all. Knowing absolutely nothing about the book should make this an interesting read. Here's the schedule of readings:

Monday, May 3 - Chapters 1-5
Monday, May 10 - Chapters 6-16
Monday, May 17 - Chapters 17-26
Monday, May 24 - Chapters 27-37
Monday, May 31 - Chapters 38-48

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cover Candy: 80th Anniversary Limited Edition of The Secret of the Old Clock

Nancy Drew, the iconic girl detective, celebrates her 80th anniversary in print with Penguin's special edition of The Secret of the Old Clock, which was first published on April 28, 1930. Attic Salt's mother has an excellent collection of Nancy Drew books from the 1950s (go here to read about Nancy Drew cover design history) and this edition, which only costs $6.99 and is available starting tomorrow, would be a great addition to a Nancy collection.

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Ann DeLorenzo on As I Lay Dying

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail

Today's favorite book is from Ann DeLorenzo, who reads and writes from her apartment in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, DC. After receiving an M.A. in literature she now works in the sciences, but dreams of returning to the world of books some day.

A little more than halfway through As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner puts forth a strange theory on the nature of words. Addie Bundren, around whose death the story turns, gets a rare moment to speak. While narrating her first pregnancy she thinks to herself:
… when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride ... and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.
This is a radical notion for an artist whose chosen medium is words. If we are to believe Addie, and I think that we are, then how can Faulkner evoke these broad human emotions – fear, love, pride, and so on – in a work made entirely of words? Faulkner’s unmatched ability to use this paradox in language to his advantage – to create works of emotional realism and psychological complexity out of mere “sounds” – makes As I Lay Dying my favorite book. If great works of literature aspire to realistic representations of human feelings, then Faulkner’s shortest novel comes closest to conveying the startling complexity of human lives.

Picking a book as an overall favorite is a peculiar exercise that places a good amount of power in the chooser’s hands. Whittling down the definition of “favorite” is part of the fun of the assignment. I’ve read other books more times – As I Lay Dying I’ve read only twice, once about a year ago and again last week so that it would be fresh in my mind for this project. I’ve enjoyed (many) other books more – anything written by Kurt Vonnegut, for example. And I have certainly spent more time thinking and writing about a number of other works – a few stories by Raymond Carver probably have the most hours logged. I won’t tell you I have a sound explanation or an elaborate points system for putting As I Lay Dying above these and other books, but I can say that it is a book I love and that I have learned from, and in the end that is really the most I can ask from a piece of literature.

Faulkner famously wrote As I Lay Dying, published in 1930, in just six weeks. The intensity of the writing process is apparent in this pithy book, which is small in scope compared to Faulkner’s other works. The story is simple: Addie Bundren dies, and the remaining Bundrens – husband Anse, sons Cash, Darl, Jewel, and Vardaman, and daughter Dewey Dell – conspire to transport her across rural Mississippi for burial in Jackson. Staples of melodrama – sibling rivalry, infidelity, uncooperative weather – intervene. The story is told from the constantly rotating perspectives of family, friends, and occasionally random people who happen to come across the Bundrens on their journey.

Each of Addie’s children reacts to her death in different and often confusing ways. Cash constructs a coffin. Jewel rages against anyone who gets in his way. And Vardaman conflates a fish caught earlier in the day with his mother’s dead body, leading to the most famous line of the book: “My mother is a fish.” Anse, on the other hand, is a hard nut to crack as he speaks entirely in platitudes, often religious, and thinks mostly of his own sad condition. The final plot twist neatly exposes the underlying motivations for Anse’s behavior and just might qualify him as Faulkner’s least sympathetic character, an impressive feat in a body of work where racists, rapists, and religious hypocrites abound. Dewey Dell is distracted from her mother’s death with a familiar predicament for a country girl, a situation that gives us the beautiful line “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.” And Darl mostly observes and intellectualizes, actions that align him with the reader and make him the most accessible character in the book. Faulkner manages to weave madness, horror, and humor into the mix as characters lack the words or understanding to process Addie’s death. Sorrow turns macabre as Vardaman, the youngest child, bores breathing holes into Addie’s coffin, and punctures her face underneath. Unexpected comedic moments largely play off of Anse Bundren’s ridiculous vanity, particularly in the final chapter.

The paper-thin membrane between humor and tragedy that this last, pivotal scene brings to light is actually stretched across the entire book. Faulkner shows that as emotions become stronger, the lines between them blur, and laughter gives way to rage, sorrow to terror. And if this is the case, why bother to name them at all? In the end, it is Darl – whose near-clairvoyant insight allows him to narrate events that he does not actually witness, like his mother’s death – who is overwhelmed by this building storm of emotional intensities.

There are more reasons why I love this book, reasons that I could go on about at length. The language is gorgeous; the section narrated by Addie gives a feminist critique of the expectations of motherhood that is decades ahead of its time; the voices of various narrators are both distinct and convincing – all elements that coalesce to make this a book that moves its reader, that reveals to its reader a previously unrealized facet of human life. And it does so without ever naming the big themes on which it rests – fear, pride, motherhood – since to name is to simplify and there is nothing simple about this book. I’m not sure if As I Lay Dying will be my favorite book next time this question is asked, but I hope that you have a chance to read it and enjoy it and learn from it as I have.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 40-50

This section begins with Elizabeth and Jane trying to decide whether to tell people what Wickham is really like; in deciding against it, they set up a rather interesting turn of events in the coming chapters. Colonel Forster's wife invites Lydia to Brighton for the summer with the soldiers and Mr. Bennet allows her to go, despite vehement protests from Elizabeth — he says Lydia will drive them crazy if not allowed to go and Elizabeth counters that Lydia will destroy the family’s already rocky reputation. She ultimately goes, and Elizabeth also leaves, going with the Gardiners to tour the Derbyshire countryside.

While there, the three decide to tour some notable homes, and end up at Darcy’s estate. Elizabeth makes sure he won’t be home when she visits, but he shows up and there’s an awkward meeting between the two. Darcy recovers himself and asks if he can introduce Elizabeth to Miss Darcy, who ends up being rather shy. The Bingleys are also there, and Mr. Bingley asks Elizabeth veiled questions about Jane, while Miss Bingley is rude to Elizabeth. The trip is cut short when Elizabeth receives letters from Jane alerting her that Lydia has run off with Wickham, and that they may not have married. Everyone panics — Elizabeth and Darcy kick themselves for not telling everyone the truth about Wickham and Elizabeth and the Gardiners head home.

Mr. Bennet heads to London to try to find Lydia while Mrs. Bennet is in a state of panic — she’s worried that her husband will die in a duel, and Mr. Collins will inherit their estate. Mr. Gardiner also heads to London to try and fix the situation, and Mr. Bennet returns home. Gardiner finds Lydia and Wickham and arranges the wedding, which requires the Bennets to contribute 100 pounds a year to the couple, which they agree to. The Bennets think that their uncle must have paid Wickham a heavy sum to marry Lydia. Lydia writes that she wants to visit before moving to the north of England, and we leave the Bennets anticipating a visit from their most foolish daughter.

It becomes clear in these chapters that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet make poor parents, and that the Gardiners have to step in and serve as surrogate parents to the Bennet girls, despite having children of their own. Mrs. Bennet is a fool — her main goal is to get her daughters married, but she undermines their own efforts with poor behavior (at the ball earlier in the book) and by supporting a poor marriage for Lydia. Mr. Bennet is more to blame — though he is the head of the household and able to think thoughtfully and seriously, he refuses to take responsibility for his children. He ignores Elizabeth’s advice about Lydia’s trip to Brighton, opting instead to let Lydia go so he wouldn’t have to hear her complaints. He thankfully realized what a bad match Mr. Collins would be for Elizabeth and didn’t push her about it like her mother did, but since that moment he has stepped back from responsibility. Yes, he goes to London to look for Lydia, but it isn’t until he leaves and Mr. Gardiner takes control that Lydia is found and the marriage is arranged. Austen has Darcy note what competent relatives the Gardiners are for Elizabeth when they meet at his estate.

These chapters are also notable for Elizabeth’s change of heart towards Darcy, and Austen does a better job exploring their relationship than she has with any pairing we’ve seen here or in Sense and Sensibility. It’s the small details that Austen includes — Darcy showing up repeatedly on Elizabeth’s walks, the pair meeting at Darcy’s estate and blushing when they see each other, Darcy standing up to Miss Bingley when she insults Elizabeth — that makes their relationship more compelling than the others that we’ve seen Austen write about so far.

While Jane and Bingley’s courtship took place in public and was subjected to rumors, Darcy and Elizabeth’s courtship is mostly private — they’re alone on walks, they’re alone when Elizabeth is at the Collins house, and Darcy shares his feelings in a private, heart-felt letter. The relationship is mostly exempt from gossip, if you exclude Miss Bingley's snide comments — the Gardiners are surprised by Elizabeth and Darcy’s closeness when they see them together his estate (though Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner subsequently refuse to bring it up), Jane knows some of what’s going on, but not all, and the other Bennets are in the dark. Without the interference of other people, Darcy and Elizabeth are allowed to figure things out for themselves.

We’ll finish Pride and Prejudice this Friday, and May’s novel is Mansfield Park, so you should pick up a copy of that this week if you'll be joining us in reading Austen's third novel.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Miscellaneous Collection of Things I Like

Creative book trailers

Though I am by no means a fan of YouTube, I have to admit that sometimes there are charming videos on the web site. While these usually involve baby animals or people dancing in unexpected places, occasionally there's a book trailer that catches my eye, like this one for The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart.

• Clever Bookmarks

I recently pulled a guidebook off my shelf to find that I had used Signers of the Declaration of Independence baseball cards to mark Revolutionary War-related pages. I've also started grabbing bookmarks from used bookstores and writing the dates I get them on the back. Gone, apparently, are the days when I would use Post-It notes or even Kleenex to mark pages.

I like these grass bookmarks a lot, even if it might look strange for an entire bookshelf to be sprouting them. Order them here.

• The New Yorker's The Book Bench blog

Along with book-related news, the blog includes regular features like 1,000 Words with photos of book related images and a really fun weekly book cover identification contest that I am determined to win someday. Posts are casual but curated, and almost always of interest.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Louise Cavanaugh on The Shadow of the Wind

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail

Today's favorite book is from Louise Cavanaugh, who teaches third grade. She lives with her husband and two mischievous cats in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where she grew up. She enjoys reading mysteries and doing crossword puzzles.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón's 2001 novel The Shadow of the Wind (originally published in Spain) is my very favorite book. It's the magical and mysterious story of Daniel, a young boy who finds a rare book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library of old, forgotten titles. After he finds the book, also named The Shadow of the Wind (by Julián Carax in the novel), Daniel meets a man who reminds him of a character from the novel and learns that he's tracking down every one of Carax's novels and burning them. This sets off a chain of events — including violence and murder — as Daniel is determined to figure out what's going on with Carax.

Zafón sets the novel in Barcelona post-World War II, a place filled with intrigue. His use of description and his amazing characters made it almost impossible to put this book down. It's a true masterpiece.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 25-39

The Bennet ladies go a-traveling during this section — Jane to stay with the Gardiners, her aunt and uncle in London, and Elizabeth to visit Charlotte and Mr. Collins. Before they go, Mrs. Gardiner tells Elizabeth that she thinks Wickham would be a bad match for her, due to his lack of money, and then she finds out that he is now interested in another lady, Miss King. Elizabeth says she isn't too sorry, and that probably means she didn't love him to begin with.

In London, Elizabeth suffers through a string of uncomfortable (yet amusing) dinners with Catherine De Bourgh and her sickly daughter (the young lady Darcy is expected to marry, as she is his cousin) in which Lady Catherine dominates the conversation while Mr. Collins, Charlotte, and Charlotte's father and sister swoon at the attention Lady Catherine pays them. Then Darcy arrives, along with his cousin, the gregarious Col. Fitzwilliam, and things improve for everyone. Elizabeth starts to get close to the Colonel, and she learns that Darcy stopped his friend from marrying a girl who he thought was a bad match. Elizabeth assumes that it's Jane and Bingley, and she's outraged. Darcy begins "accidentally" running into Elizabeth while she's out walking, and later pays her a visit when she's the only one home. Elizabeth can't figure out why he's behaving like this, and Charlotte wisely tells her that he must love her.

He does — Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, and as her response, Elizabeth tells him: "I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world who I could ever be prevailed on to marry." She tells him that she can't believe he convinced Bingley not to marry Jane and accuses him of interfering in Wickham's livelihood. Darcy comes to see her the next morning and hands her a letter that explains everything.

It turns out that Darcy thought Jane wasn't really into Bingley and he didn't want his friend to get his heart broken. He also mentioned that the Bennet parents and younger siblings are pretty socially awkward, which is true. As for Wickham, it turns out that he squandered money and tried to elope with Darcy's sister to gain her fortune. Elizabeth realizes that her opinions of Darcy were based on rumor and untruth, and wonders what else she has been wrong about.

This section marks the turning point in Pride and Prejudice — Elizabeth realizes that she's been too quick to judge people, while Darcy realizes that his pride is getting in the way of his being happy. I think we all know where things are headed, but it's fun to watch them get there and have Darcy and Elizabeth work to correct their flaws, which are heavy ones compared to the flaws in Sense and Sensibility.

As Cassandra noted in the comments from last week, "While it was difficult to take Marianne seriously and Elinor often came off like a martyr, Jane and Elizabeth complement each other so well, and are both genuinely good, lovable people. Jane's flaw, being too trusting and refusing all but the best possible interpretations of someone's actions, is not a moral failing. Lizzie's propensity to pre-judge people and satirize foibles is actually a more serious shortcoming, but because it is rooted in good humor and genuine emotional insight, neither is it wholly bad."

While Elizabeth judges people too quickly and Darcy's pride is an obstacle to marrying Elizabeth, their pride and prejudices do not necessarily result in hurting other people — in fact, with the exception of each other, their flaws don't have any great effect on anyone else in the novel. Is that Austen's way of ensuring we'll like both characters?

As a side note, Darcy's proposal — Elizabeth's second in a short period of time — reminded me of a line from The Importance of Being Earnest, when Lady Bracknell says: "I do not know whether there is anything peculiarly exciting in the air of this particular part of Hertfordshire, but the number of engagements that go on seems to me considerably above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance."

Next week's reading is chapters 40-50.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

You love some books from the first page — they start with a bang and are wonderful until the last page. You love some books from the last page — in retrospect they're notable and important, but the process of reading them may not have been wonderful. Then there are some books that start off all wrong for you, but you stick with them and are rewarded when the author settles into her story and finds her voice — sometimes books just need to warm up.

Marisha Pessl's 2006 novel Special Topics In Calamity Physics belongs to the latter category. I was initially turned off by it, as I found overwhelming similarities between it and Donna Tartt's 1992 novel, The Secret History — some sentences are almost identical — but then Pessl saves her novel by doing something really unbelievable with the ending.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is about Blue van Meer, a high school senior starting the school year in a small town in North Carolina. Blue has spent her whole life traveling around the country with her professor father (her mother died 11 years earlier), and narrates the tale from the future, when she is a student at Harvard. At school she falls in with a group of cool, beautiful students and their cool, beautiful film teacher, though they initially keep her at arm's length. As the fall semester progresses, Blue learns that her friends aren't quite what they seem, and, after the death of a man at a party, she realizes that everyone may be caught up in some dangerous activities.

This almost parallels The Secret History, except it takes place in high school instead of college and the teacher is a woman and not a man. But a third of the way through, Pessl shifts the narrative slightly and makes it entirely her own. The focus here isn't on the other students, though elegant Jade, beautiful Charles, ethereal Lu, and the others would be fascinating if Pessl actually did something with them — then again, Blue is the narrator, and the students are not the focus of her story. Instead the object of scrutiny is Hannah Schneider, a 44-year-old film teacher who "adopts" students, bringing them into her home each Sunday for dinner and encouraging their potential in any way she can. It's odd, though, how they all come together, and Pessl never really quite tells us the impetus for each character joining the group.

The best thing about Special Topics in Calamity Physics is that the ending is so incredibly unexpected. I do read mysteries from time to time, but never have a read a mystery (which this novel is, in part) that turned everything on its head so wonderfully — we learn that not a single character is as they seem.

Pessl is an engaging writer, crafting memorable characters (Blue's father is amazing. Lately I've been thinking about parental figures in novels, more on that later I'm sure.) and working with the canon (chapter titles are named for classic books and parallel the plots of those books). It isn't perfect — at times it strays into cliché (how many novels do we need about groups of outsider college students drawn together by a professor?) and if it weren't for the ending I wouldn't have liked it half as much — but I've already recommended it to someone, a sure sign that I like a novel.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Emily St. John Mandel on Hopscotch

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail

Today's favorite book is from Emily St. John Mandel, the author of Last Night In Montreal. Her second novel, The Singer’s Gun, will be published in May.

I have a lot of favourite books, but the one I come back to most frequently is Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch. It's the story of an Argentinian writer, Horacio Oliveira, who lives with his girlfriend La Maga in Paris. Horacio and his circle of friends are uniformly poor and over-educated, philosophizing endlessly and listening to jazz and not quite getting around to writing their masterpieces in low-rent rooms in questionable neighborhoods. This is an oddly cold bohemia they inhabit, intellectual at the expense of heart and soul, and it takes a catastrophe to catapult Horacio out of it; after the death of a child and the disappearance of La Maga he returns to Buenos Aires, where he struggles to find his place in the world.

The writing is dazzling, and the novel has the strangest structure of any book I've ever read. It's essentially two books in one: you can either read it in the strictly traditional sequential manner, chapter 1, then chapter 2, etc., and so on until you reach the end of chapter 56, or you can follow a chart of chapter numbers at the front of the book, which requires that you start the novel at chapter 73. From there you proceed to chapter 1, then 2, then 116, then 3, and so on and so forth, hopscotching (sorry) around the text until you get trapped in a back-and-forth loop between chapters 58 and 131.

The basic framework of the story remains the same, but the two versions yield subtly different books; layers are revealed in the second version of the book that are only hinted at in the first. Every year I fall in love with a few more books and mentally add them to my favorite book list, but Hopscotch is the one that I return to over and over again.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 12-24

We catch up with the Bennet sisters at Netherfield, where they are still staying since Mrs. Bennet refuses to fetch them until they've been there a week. Luckily Bingley sends them home, where Mr. Bennet is pleased to see them and his wife is annoyed they have returned "early."

This section is dominated by Mr. Collins, a cousin of Mr. Bennet's who is in line to inherit Longbourn, as he is Bennet's closest male relative. Collins comes to visit and it turns out that he doesn't want to check out his future inheritance but rather decide which Bennet sister to propose to. Unfortunately for Collins, all the Bennets (Mrs. excluded) think he's a big fool - he's long-winded, self-absorbed, and generally unpleasant to be around.

During his visit, Collins and the Bennet sisters walk over to Meryton, where they run into Darcy and Mr. Wickham, a charming, handsome man. Elizabeth notices some animosity between the two men, but doesn't discover its source until she sits next to Wickham at a dinner: he tells her that he has known the Darcy family for some time, and that Darcy's father promised to give him a parish at their estate. After his father's death Darcy broke the promise. Wickham paints Darcy in an ill light, matching Elizabeth's initial impressions of him, and she encourages his negative comments. She also finds herself mildly smitten with Wickham.

The Bingleys throw a ball at Netherfield and Elizabeth is disappointed when Wickham doesn't come. She does, however, dance and spar gloriously with Darcy. The ball is a mess, though, thanks to the Bennet family's strange behavior — Mrs. Bennet brags loudly that Jane will marry Bingley, Mary sings loudly and awkwardly for the entire party, and the Bennets are the last people to leave. Elizabeth is mortified.

The next day Collins proposes to Elizabeth. Elizabeth shoots him down repeatedly, but he takes this as encouragement. Mrs. Bennet, outraged that her daughter would turn down a marriage proposal, refuses to speak to her. She goes to her husband for help, and he delivers the best line of the novel so far: "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do." Amazing.

Miss Bingley writes Jane a letter to tell her that she and her brother have left Netherfield for good, and that she expects her brother will marry Miss Darcy. Jane is pretty upset, and Elizabeth tells her that the Bingley sisters are trying to keep Jane and Bingley apart, but Jane doesn't believe her. Things get awkward for everyone when Elizabeth's friend Charlotte woos Collins, and he proposes to her - right after he proposed to Elizabeth. The Bennets question how Charlotte could marry someone like Collins, while Mrs. Bennet laments the loss of the estate from their family.

I'm interested in the ways Austen portrays class in Pride and Prejudice, and class becomes even more important in the section we're reading for next week. The novel has characters who look down on others for their social standing (Darcy, Miss Bingley) and of characters who look up to others because of their social standing (the younger Bennet girls, Mrs. Bennet). Austen uses Collins to satirize the latter type of character, as he praises his ridiculous patroness Lady Catherine ad nauseum throughout his visit to the Bennets. For Austen, class isn't everything — it's just a tiny part of who you are.

Anyone have thoughts on class in the novel? Or about how lucky we are that our mothers are not like Mrs. Bennet? Next week's reading is Chapters 25-39.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Mystery on Main Street in Brattleboro, Vt.

On a recent visit to Vermont, I went to Mystery on Main Street, a mystery-only bookstore in Brattleboro. It's a small space, but one filled with every major mystery author from around the world that you've heard of — and many you haven't. The British edition of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest was displayed prominently (over two months before it would be available in the U.S.) and one wall was lined with books. In the back, you can find an Edward Gorey (a personal favorite) gift section, with books, magnets, bookmarks and things of that nature, as well as Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books.

Mystery on Main Street holds author events and maintains a pretty cute web site that's updated with new releases and an index of local authors. They're currently working on an online store, but for now you can place an order with them over the phone. I picked up a book there, thanks to a recommendation from the man working, and ended up loving it.

Have a great independent shop to plug on Attic Salt? Drop an e-mail to

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Marjorie Kehe on Jane Eyre

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail

Today's favorite book is from Marjorie Kehe, the book editor for the Christian Science Monitor. She blogs daily at Chapter and Verse. She has a degree in Italian language and literature from Middlebury College and a PhD in comparative literature from NYU. Marjorie lives in Boston, Mass., and reads most comfortably with two cats in her lap and her dog Sheba at her feet.

Is it true that what we are at 10 is pretty much what we remain for the rest of our lives? Perhaps so, because I was 10 the first time I read Jane Eyre and several decades have passed since but it is still my favorite book.

I have no idea how many times I have read it. It seems to me that between the ages of 10 and 12 or so I practically memorized it. After that, I began to pick it up once every few years or so.

Every time I do, I discovered something new. When I was younger it was, of course, the romance that appealed to me most and I tended to rush through the pages that didn’t include Mr. Rochester.

As an adult, however, I’ve come to love the stretches when Jane is on her own – enduring her horrid family, growing as a student at Lowood, wandering lost after leaving Thornfield, and living quietly, purposefully, with St. John and his family. These are the periods in which she develops her character and her courage and it is that character that makes her – for me – the perfect literary heroine. She’s not beautiful, she’s not wealthy, she’s not physically imposing in any way. But she’s brave and she’s bright and she’s got a fiercesome ability to put her thoughts into words – especially when she’s indignant.

I’ve long thought that you could divide all women into two categories – those who prefer Jane Eyre and those who prefer Wuthering Heights. I am definitely in the former camp. Nothing against Wuthering Heights. But picture, if you will, a tiny, plain, working-class woman addressing her wealthy employer – a man with whom she happens to have fallen in love. She thinks he is leaving her to marry someone else. She tells him, “I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.”

But we readers know that he will never willing leave her, because the beauty of her character has captivated him, and, as a result, the Blanche Ingrams of the world no longer stand a chance.

Maybe it’s time for me to read it again.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 1-11

For this week we read the first 11 chapters of Pride and Prejudice, and I have to start by saying that this is the Austen novel I've most been looking forward to reading. It's the best known, certainly, and it has spawned two great movie versions — the 1995 BBC series with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle and the 2005 film with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen — so I already know the plot going in. The novel has also lead to innumerable mash-ups, spin-offs, and tributes, so clearly the characters and plot resonate with people to an extent that her other novels do not.

So what I really want to discover about Pride and Prejudice is whether it lives up to the hype. Is Austen's Elizabeth Bennet going to be just as dynamic as her on-screen portrayals? Is Mr. Darcy really the ultimate Austen hero? My gut tells me yes, and at only 11 chapters in, I already like Pride and Prejudice more than I liked Sense and Sensibility; Austen still does too much narrating in lieu of having her characters exhibit or talk about their feelings, but Elizabeth and Darcy have crackling repartee and the Bennet parents are hilarious.

The novel starts with Mrs. Bennet's announcement to her husband that Mr. Bingley, a highly eligible bachelor, has moved into the neighborhood, and she instructs him that he must go visit him so their daughters can meet him. He does, and the sisters — Jane, the eldest, is pretty; Elizabeth is smart; Lydia and Catherine are boy crazy; and Mary is quiet and kind of odd — meet him at a ball, where Bingley is quite taken with Jane. We also meet Bingley's friends who are staying with him — Mr. Darcy, his sisters Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, along with the latter's husband. Darcy is quite rude to everyone at the ball, refusing to dance and telling Bingley that he doesn't find Elizabeth pretty. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth and the others want little to do with him, though Miss Bingley keeps blatantly trying to get his attention.

The Bingley sisters invite Jane over for dinner and she falls ill while at their estate (having ridden there on horseback in the rain, per her mother's instructions) and is unable to leave. Elizabeth walks over there to stay with Jane, and both sisters spend time with the Bingleys and Darcy. Elizabeth doesn't care for the Bingley sisters, finding them shallow and frivolous, while she likes Mr. Bingley, mostly because his regard for Jane is obvious.

Austen tells us that Darcy realizes he actually does find Elizabeth pretty, but Elizabeth thinks he is excessively proud. At the close of chapter 11, Elizabeth and Darcy tell each other what they perceive each other's main flaw to be — "Your defect is a propensity to hate everybody," Elizabeth tells Darcy. "And yours… is to willfully misunderstand them," he replies.

And with that, we're off to a great start with this novel. Who's playing along (or has read Pride and Prejudice) before, and what do you think of the book so far?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson

“this is why we call people exes, i guess – because the paths that cross in the middle end up separating at the end. it’s too easy to see an X as a cross-out. it’s not, because there’s no way to cross out something like that. the X is a diagram of two paths.” [sic].

So says Will Grayson, partial narrator of the new dual-authored novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson (out on Tuesday), making rare use of capitalization. Though he may not realize it, Will Grayson is describing the structure of the novel, which follows the X-like paths of two teenagers who have the same name.

Will Grayson is co-written by reputable YA authors John Green and David Levithan, each writing half the novel from the perspective of one Will Grayson. This is similar to Levithan’s work with Rachel Cohn in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List. The gimmick works here like never before, as the Wills collide together in a perfect storm of adolescent identity crises.

Levithan’s Will is a perpetually withdrawn closeted gay kid with a regiment of antidepressants and a lonesome, Pride and Prejudice-obsessed single mother. Green’s Will is similarly withdrawn although he fits into a less oppressive social caste than Levithan’s. Green’s Will withdraws by conscious choice, making two rules for himself: “1. Don’t care too much. 2. Shut up.”

Will has created this ‘seen and not heard’ defense mechanism in the social fallout of having publicly supported, in writing, his best friend’s open homosexuality. That friend is Tiny Cooper, ironically nicknamed (and flamingly gay) giant football player. Tiny will be the node at which the two Will Graysons intersect and also the novel’s thematic nexus.

Tiny is the rare openly gay high schooler; in the hallways he flaunts his homosexuality in a way that not only wears down the homophobia of his classmates but also wears down the patience of his best friend Will. When Tiny later gets close to the other Will Grayson, the moody, insular one who thinks in lowercase, he forces both Wills, already reflexively questioning themselves, to come up with some answers.

Within their contemporary suburban setting, Green and Levithan make expert use of the gadgets and Internets that keep teenagers (and adults, when you get right down to it) from making connections with others. It’s poignant and heart-wrenching to witness these poor kids desperately constructing extensions of themselves via Facebook, text message and chat room, but neglecting to reinforce the foundations of their actual physical and mental selves. At one crucial moment, a character stumbles upon an emotional truth by tapping out an e-mail on his cell phone that he will never send.

The novel’s most sweeping example of this is the arc of Tiny’s original musical, Tiny Dancer, which goes from page to stage over the course of the book. The musical is an overhyped epic autobiographical tale of growing up out and proud, but of course there’s more to Tiny’s self-possession than pride. The play, like most of the characters’ actions, represents a desperate existential plea for validation.

Tiny forces the Wills into a love triangle that contrasts romantic love with platonic by questioning which is easier to fall in to or out of. Upon meeting each other, the two Will Graysons must confront their own demons head on:  not only are you not very good at being you, but suddenly you have to compete. Who are you, really, if you aren't even the only one who's you?

The solution they find — that the self must be defined both in terms of the people who love you but also in terms of, you know, yourself — may be a little contrived and easy for a group of humans as realistically flawed as these, but it’s also touching and, more importantly, instructive. The tale of two Will Graysons becomes a fable about the essential need to be okay with yourself before you can be okay with other people. I wish I’d had this book when I was in high school.

Todd Detmold is the proprietor of My Favorite Gum Commercial. Were he ever to confront a second Todd Detmold, the universe would likely collapse in upon itself in a cloud of passive aggression. To contribute a review or other literary musings to Attic Salt, e-mail

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pride and Prejudice Kick-Off

Having wrapped up Sense and Sensibility, it's onto April's book — Pride and Prejudice. Here's the schedule for the next month of readings, if you'd like to join me in reading Austen's second novel. There are 61 chapters in the book, which means you would have to read just over two chapters a day (and these are usually just a couple pages) to finish the book in April. I shifted things around slightly to try and even out number of pages for each week. The schedule:

Monday, April 5 - Chapters 1-11
Monday, April 12 - Chapters 12-24
Monday, April 19 - Chapters 25-39
Monday, April 26 - Chapters 40-50
Friday, April 30 - Chapters 51-61

See you here Monday to talk Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy!