Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle

First, here's a link to a wonderful site concerning a prize named for one of the best children's authors I've ever read, Roald Dahl.

The Roald Dahl Funny Prize
Website for this competition inaugurated in 2008 that presents prizes for "The Funniest Book for Children Aged Six and Under" and "The Funniest Book for Children Aged Seven to Fourteen." Includes lists of nominated books, an article about the science of humor, and links to site about author Roald Dahl. From Booktrust, a British organization "that encourages people of all ages and cultures to discover and enjoy reading."
LII Item:

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel (Oprah Book Club)
by David Wroblewski

I read this book for my KCLS Tuesday night book group which will meet again in November.
Here's the synopsis from, which outlines the book better than I could:

Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm--and into Edgar's mother's affections.

Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father's death, but his plan backfires--spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father's murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.

David Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes--the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a fateful vision rendered in the falling rain--create a riveting family saga, a brilliant exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.

I have to disagree with some of the above, mainly because, though I realize it's a modern take on Hamlet, I didn't think this book was as glorious as Oprah and all the other tastemakers seem to think it is.
My first problem with the book was Edgar loved his dog Almondine more than he loved his own mother, and when he dies, his spirit is ushered into the spirit realm not by his father, whom he loved, nor his mother, but by this dog who has looked after him so tenderly since he was a child. And therein lies another of my problems with this novel.
Dogs are pack animals, emphasis on the animal. They do not have huge brains that think and reason the way humans do. I know that there are millions of people out there who think that their dog/cat/goldfish is exceptionally smart and understands them when they talk and is anthropomorphized to the hilt. But really, people, a dog is still a dog, not a human, and they just are not that smart. They are creatures of instinct. But the author, I'll call him David because his last name is ridiculous, has cast these Sawtelle bred and trained dogs as some kind of super canine that can see into the human soul and do/think amazing things. That just didn't wash with me.

Nor did the seemingly endless narratives of the intricacies of dog training. I do not hate animals, not by a long shot, but my eyes glazed over and I nearly fell asleep every time David started to go on and on about the various kinds of training, hand signals, postures, whelping of pups, breeding lines, etc. YAWN.

David's prose is, for the most part, quite Steinbeck-like and evocative, so there are plenty of paragraphs that sing off the page and glisten with gorgeous metaphors. And those parts are what kept me reading through the incredibly dull passages about the stupid dogs. Seriously, you really have to be into dogs in a big way to enjoy this book in its entirety. And that's another flaw, the length of this tome. It's massive, and a good editor could have trimmed at least 100 pages off of it without hurting the storyline at all. There were lots of things in this book that we really didn't need to know, that were throw aways and worthless to the advancement of the plot. And speaking of the plot, though its cobbed from Shakespeare, this has to be the slowest, most roundabout way of getting from the beginning to the end that I've ever read. It's almost as if David feels that because the action takes place in the midwest, on a farm, that the plot should also move seasonally, slowly, and just take its own sweet time of getting the story told.
I grew up in Iowa, so I can appreciate the deliberate pace of farming, but I don't think that kind of movement is at all appropriate in a novel. Most people really do not have time to linger over every wispy thought that an author has about the beauty of farmland or the way a barn smells in the summer. I kept wanting to tell the author to get over himself, that it's only showing off to waste the readers time with so much description and narration.
Edgars mother is unlike any Midwestern woman I've ever encountered, as she's a complete idiot who can't seem to see the evil in her husbands brother, though its clear he's up to no good from the moment we meet him. And, sadly, he never gets his comeuppance for being a murdering slimebag. In fact, we never actually know if he dies or not, but of course Edgar gets slaughtered by evil uncle and we're supposed to be okay with that.
There is little to recommend the other characters in the book, from the stupid veterinarian and his ox-like son to the old man who rescues Edgar and his dogs from starvation when they're on the run. Most of the people in this book are weak and ridiculous, if they're not murderous, sly and evil. I would guess that David has a very dim view of humanity in general, which doesn't make for good storytelling, in my opinion. The entire book can be summed up by the phrase, "Life's a bitch (as in female dog) and then you die."
So if you have a month or two to devote to reading a glacially-slow plot in a book about anthropomorphized dogs that don't really exist, and you find mute teenagers interesting, then by all means, pick up The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Just don't say I didn't warn you if you doze off halfway through.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Five Fall Books Read

I love fall, it's my favorite time of year. The air is crisp, cool and smells of apples and woodsmoke, the skies are sunny without the sun bearing down on you to roast you alive or bake you to a lobster-color, as always happens with me, and kids go back to school, allowing their parents to shop for office supplies (I am a pen collector who could spend at least an hour or three in the pen section of any office supply store). And fall is the gateway to the holidays, starting with every theater-major's favorite fest, Halloween, and moving on to Thanksgiving, my sons birthday, my husbands birthday, my birthday, Christmas and New Years.
Meanwhile, though, this year has been one of health difficulties/death/financial woes and strife for my whole family, and the stress has sent me to my TBR stack to devour one book after another, just to get away from it all.
I've read the following since I last posted:

Murder Can Depress Your Dachshund by Selma Eichler
The Bell At Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip
Wanderlust by Ann Aguirre
Table for Five by Susan Wiggs
The Land of Mango Sunsets by Dorothea Benton Frank

Out of those books only two were really worth reading, while the other three I plan on donating back to the library book cart, and wishing I could get back the time I wasted reading them.

First, the great books.
Ann Aguirre's Wanderlust is the sequel to her flashy debut novel Grimspace, which I reviewed here awhile back. Though I still think that there are way too many swear words in both novels (and I am by no means a prude, I just don't like seeing vehement curses and vile words tossed off on every single page), I can't deny my love of Aguirre's fine characters. Sirantha Jax is one tough cookie, a 'jumper' who navigates FTL ships through 'grimspace' which is sort of like the fluid space that the navigators fold in Frank Herberts Dune series. Jax brought the truth about the Farwan Corp to the world, and as a result has lost her job now that the company's corner on the intergalatic travel and commerce market has ceased to exist. So Jax is tagged by the government to lead a diplomatic mission to Ithiss Tor with her own crew of characters in tow--from the hottie March to Dina the lesbian mechanic, Jael the clone and Vel the insect inside a human sheath, to Doc and the others, its one wild and often painful adventure after another. Aguirre's prose is as edgy as her protagonist, with not a lot wasted on description or narration. Her plots move at light speed and her dialog is, as mentioned previously, spicy and crude, but it rings true for the universe she's created for her characters. I always have trouble putting Aguirres books down once I've picked them up, and such was the case with Wanderlust as well, as I stayed up until 2 am reading it after purchasing a copy on If you like your Science Fiction with a jalapeno kick and a heroine who stays with you, I recommend Grimspace and Wanderlust.

The Bell at Seeley Head was the 18th book of McKillips that I've read and adored, so it was natural for me to beg my husband to purchase the hardback for me as an 11th anniversary gift on October 5.
McKillip is my favorite fantasy author because her books read like a lucid and gorgeous dream; once you're in her world, even things that don't make sense somehow seem totally normal and reasonable. Her prose is luscious and evocative, her characters rare and fascinating, her plots meandering and magical. Each of her books brings a legend or fairy tale from another dimension to life. You know, once you've read one of her perfect paragraphs that you're in the hands of a storytelling master, someone who is so adept with words that beautiful prose comes as easily to her as breathing. When I'm in the presence of something beautiful, like a painting by Vermeer or Renoir, or music by Aaron Copeland, or glass blown and sculpted by hand at the Waterford Crystal works in Waterford Ireland, I tend to get all choked up, emotionally filled with an unspeakable joy that such things exist and were created by the hands of humans. I get the same feeling when I read something wonderful by John Steinbeck and Patricia McKillip and Diane Ackerman. All three share a deftness with words that is brilliant, blinding and joyful. But with the joy of reading perfect prose is the bittersweet feeling of knowing that I will never create something that incandescently lovely myself. My talents as a writer run to the mediocre, at best.
But I digress.
The Bell At Seeley Head is a tale of two dimensions in one home, of the person who vows to undo the evil magic binding some of the characters to nonsensical rituals that have gone on for centuries, and of two characters who fall in love rather accidently over books and mundane tasks. Gwyneth and Judd are both such sensible young people, and yet they inhabit a world that doesn't always make sense. They're constantly dealing with characters who aren't what they seem, and always trying to find ways to explain the tolling of a bell at sunset in a town without a bell anywhere. Seeley Head is a strange and fascinating town, the kind of place where fate and destiny colide. As with all of McKillips books, you have to glide along with the dream and know that it will all make sense in the end, otherwise you might get frustrated at the delicate pace the novel takes. For anyone who loves rich fantasy worlds and intriquing characters that are like no other characters anywhere, I recommend the Bell at Seeley Head.

Now as to the three paperback throwaways I read, I can't say that I hated Table for Five completely, but it was in dire need of a good editor to remove all the fluff stuffing and puffing out every chapter. The characters are somewhat stereotypical, and the plot drags in spots. The prose is okay, if not good, and the dialog rings true for the most part. However, I felt it was all a bit too "Cinderella" for anyone with a brain, and I have a hard time with stupid characters who seem to add no real value to the story. This book is what most people would call a decent beach read, something you pick up, whip through and then toss when you're done. I don't really think I will be yearning to read anything else Wiggs has written anytime soon, however, as her story seems a bit too formulaic.

It was better than "Murder can Depress your Dachshund" and "Land of Mango Sunsets" however.
I've read several of Dorothea Benton Franks works, and I liked a couple of them, but this particular work had such an annoying, b*tchy and shallow woman as the protagonist that I was tempted to quit reading halfway through. Fortunately, Miriam has a change of heart halfway through the book, and becomes tolerable enough that you don't want to strangle her. Miriam is a Manhattan socialite whose husband left her for a bimbo, and who has an apartment building that she rents out to a cast of characters, among them her gay best friend, who provides comic relief and clothing/interior design advice throughout the novel because, of course, that is what all gay men do, right? Miriam is prissy, mean and judgmental, and as a result has estranged grown children and few friends, which is no surprise. The plot drags like a dog with no hind legs for the first 2/3 of the book,and finally gets moving later on. Everyone but the main three characters are cliches, and the prose is rather turgid and tense.
The same can be said of Murder Can Depress..., whose main character is Desiree Shapiro, a loud and obnoxious New Yorker who is also a private investigator.The author spends a lot of time describing every morsel that Shapiro puts into her mouth, as if that is important or germaine to the story (it's not, trust me). The prose is cut rate, cheap sounding and the dialog anything but sparkling. Half the book is spent with Shapiro having no idea what is going on, who dunnit, why, or where she will find more clues. Shapiro whines, her clients whine and cry, her boyfriend is spineless and her friends are even more obnoxious than she is. Ugh. If you're in the mood for a fun and interesting mystery that moves along at a ginger pace, avoid this book. It's not worth the time or effort you'll spend reading it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ivan Doig, Doppelganger

As I was reading the daily Shelf Awareness Listserve digest today, I discovered that Ivan Doig and I have the same taste in books, though he grew up reading comic books and I grew up reading fiction and science fiction. He's 21 years older than I am, and obviously an author of fine literature, but I was fascinated by his responses to Book Brahmins queries. It was especially gratifiying to read that he loves William Faulkner and Isak Dinesen as much as I do...obviously a man of taste.

Book Brahmins: Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig was born in Montana in 1939 and grew up along the Rocky
Mountain Front, the dramatic landscape that has inspired much of his
writing. A recipient of a lifetime Distinguished Achievement Award from
the Western Literature Association, he is the author of eight previous
novels, most recently The Whistling Season, and three works of
nonfiction, including This House of Sky. His latest book is The Eleventh
Man, to be published October 18 by Harcourt. He lives in Seattle.

On your nightstand now:

The King's English by Betsy Burton. Adventures in bookselling by Salt
Lake City's La Pasionara of literature.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Comic books. When we would come to town from ranch work on Saturday
night, my dad would empty all the dimes and nickels out of his pocket,
and I would race to the drugstore to buy "funny books." Funny or
outlandish ("Amazing!" usually blood-red on the cover), they lit my
imagination in the total absence of children's classics in our
tumbleweed way of life. And I can still tell when a comic-strip
cartoonist is vamping it and when the drawn lines thrum with blood from
the heart.

Your top five authors:

William Faulkner, for the unvanquished audacity of his language and
characterizations. Isak Dinesan: her delicately sly handling of magic
and romance brings out the fabulous in human fables. Ismail Kadare, who
outlasted the Iron Curtain nightmare that was Albania to give us such
profoundly universal novels as Chronicle in Stone, The Palace of Dreams
and The Three-Arched Bridge. Pablo Neruda, poet of Chile and the world,
for showing us what an infinite prism is metaphor. Linda Bierds, blessed
poet not of self but of selves, with an uncanny ability to rove history
in bell-clear tones.

Book you've always meant to finish reading:

Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer. This epic of political involvement
during the apartheid era in South Africa is intricate at all levels and
at its most intense and Dostoevskian, I tend to put the book down like
something glowing mysteriously and vow to come back to it when it and I
have cooled.

Book you're an evangelist for:

The All of It by Jeannette Haien. It's a pocket miracle, partly an Irish
A River Runs Through It, partly a love story of the most heart-aching
sort, and thoroughly stunning in its command of language.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Wind, Sand and Stars. The Paul Bacon Studio's 1967 paperback artwork for
Antoine de Saint Exupery's meditations on flying, a lone small biplane
in the center of the cover with a swatch of the Andes emerging above,
still seems to be perfect. No way could I have guessed that Paul later
would become part of American consciousness with a very different piece
of art, that ever-rising shark on the cover of Jaws, and that starting
with my first book, This House of Sky, his inimitable inventiveness
would grace five of my covers.

Book that changed your life:

Solitude by Anthony Storr. One of the oddest aspects of being a writer
is having to sit around in your own head all the time, watching things
flit through the twilight of the mind as you try to figure out--was that
a bat that just flew past? Or the whispering ghost of Shakespeare? This
Oxford clinical psychologist's validation of creative aloneness, "a
valuable integrating process which, like meditation or prayer, has
little to do with other people," brought me the relief and understanding
that the lonesome work of writing is itself a legitimate companion.

Favorite line from a book:

So many, so many. I'll stick with the opening line of A Farewell to
Arms, perhaps not even Ernest Hemingway's best, but rhythmically sinuous
enough that I always use it for a microphone check: "In the late summer
of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the
river and the plain towards the mountains."

Book that makes you sit up and ask, "Where did this come from?"

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. Grandee of Yale, prize-winning
poet, Southern gentleman of letters, Warren used his witnessing of the
Huey Long political regime in Louisiana to go on a spree of prose that
anticipates Jack Kerouac, a decade ahead of On the Road. As a novel,
King's Men tries to tell too many stories at once--it stops and broods
at the drop of a vote, plotwise it's pretty much a mess--but on almost
any given page, it makes you pop your eyelids and think, whoa, this is
what writing can do?

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle. Maximally raunchy as it is, Doyle's tale
of young Dublin layabouts tuning themselves up into a Motown-style band
is a tour de force of dialogue. Beyond that, he brings off the terrific
aural stunt of getting the sounds of the the Commitments and their
female backup singers, the Commitmentettes, onto the page, music by way
of the eye to ear. ("The horns:--DUUH-DU DUHH-DUUH DU DUHH-") Rapid
magic, Brother Doyle.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Book Promotion

Writers Weekly's Richard and Angela Hoy are running a very unique and fun book promotion for one of their BookLocker authors.
I agreed to put a link to his site on my blog, so here it is:
The Hoys own the best and most useful writers listserve/web site out there, so you can't go wrong with any book they might be promoting. They're wonderful people, too, and have helped many a writer out of a jam with deadbeat editors and scam artists.
If you happen to be a writer looking for work, check out Writers Weekly for all the latest jobs and news in the publishing world. Angela also writes a fascinating article called "News From the Home Office" that always keeps me riveted to the screen to find out the latest from the Hoy compound in Maine.