Sunday, March 28, 2010

I Liked The Stuff About the Dogs

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book was very enjoyable and a real page-turner, but sort of unsatisfactory in the end -- partly because I kept making unfair comparisons to A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. That book is also set in the rural Midwest and based on one of Shakespeare's plays (King Lear). Wroblewski's book is based on Hamlet and I don't think it works as well.

Edgar Sawtelle (who is born mute) and his parents raise a special crossbreed of dog on a farm in Wisconsin and do intensive and specialized training with them. The details about the work and about Edgar's relationship with the dogs and one in particular (who stands in for Ophelia) is really compelling. We hear the story of two generations of Sawtelles before the Hamlet plot kicks in. And Edgar's family life is portrayed as sort of an idyll, with the only sour note struck by his uncle, Claude, who stays with the family after being released from prison.

The problem, to me, is that Hamlet feels awkwardly grafted onto the story. There is a rather abrupt change in tone when Edgar's father dies, as though what came before is unrelated. Everything gets dark and sinister -- the family's grief gets magnified and twisted. Things start getting a little too crazy. My dim memories of studying a bit of Shakespeare in school include some stuff about tragedy. Didn't tragedy have to do with a person's essential character? What make events a tragedy is that those involved can behave in no way other than the one their essential natures dictate. Maybe I'm thinking of the Greeks? Anyway, it felt like some of the Hamelt-ian plot and character was forced on this book. The essential natures of the characters seem to change. He could have written a more believable and devastating story by just leaving the Danes out of it.

I may have felt differently about this book, if I'd never read A Thousand Acres, which took King Lear and his three daughters and put them on a farm in Iowa. Smiley transposed the machinations of Lear into the internal politics and secrets of a family farm. Having experienced a family farm, I was blown away by how clearly she got the details. I felt like I knew her characters -- they were SO familiar. And the conflict was not at all stagey. She is scary good. So, you know, Wroblewski was handicapped with me. But he's obviously talented, so I think he should just go it alone.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sticking It to the Victorians

The Way of All Flesh (Giant Thrifts) The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book was amazing, and I had a hard time putting it down, even when I was being sort of rude. I took it with me when I visited friends in Florida and kept picking it up whenever I could. It's about a child's emergence from a childhood with abusive and controlling parents into a confused early adulthood and ultimately rational manhood. Apparently, the author meant the book as a condemnation of certain Victorian views, especially about religion. The main character's father is a deeply flawed clergyman who takes his bad moods out on his son.

I really enjoyed the progress the main character makes and the sort of emotional puzzles he has to solve, like figuring out that the path that's been set for him is one he hates, and how hard it is sometimes to discover the things you really like to do. Or how unpleasant or hateful people sometimes don't get their comeuppance. I dearly love books like this that are all about the observation of human behavior and relationships. And moralizing. I can tell I'm going to be re-reading this one several times.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Crazy Family

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Just got back from our book club on this book. It launched many discussion tangents about racism, which was cool. The story is compelling -- about a Jewish woman who left her extremely unpleasant family as a teenager. She moved to New York and eventually married a black man some time in the 1940s. The book alternates between chapters about the author's upbringing with stories from his mother's life. There are a lot of aspects and layers to the whole thing: immigration (she was born in Poland), Jews and African Americans living in the south, the author's identity confusion, his mother's complete silence about her own upbringing (until he pried it out of her for the book) and general stoicism and abrasiveness, her embracing of Christianity, her having 12 children, her two beloved husbands, the family's struggle and poverty and ultimate success. The book wasn't flawless by any means, but it was a fascinating story.

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Suspicious Therapeutics

Dibs in Search of Self Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia M. Axline

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book sat on the bookshelf at home when I was a kid and I read it a few times. Lord knows where it came from as nobody in my family was especially interested in psychology that I'm aware of. It's about a form of play therapy meant to assist emotionally troubled children. The kid she describes (and gives the very weird alias "Dibs") is the child of affluent but apparently clueless and emotionally distant parents. The therapy seems to have a fairly dramatic effect on him in a short period of time (the length of a school year). It's satisfying in a way that the therapy I'm aware of is not: Dibs experiences beneficial changes that last. I'm not sure I believe this is nonfiction. Anyway, I ran into a copy at the used bookstore and felt the need to re-experience it.

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