The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, written by David Wroblewski is a beautiful allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a love story, a story for animal lovers, and a tale of the intricate interweaving of family dynamics. As I read this book, my main thought was that I wish that I had this book while I was in high school, struggling to understand Hamlet. While it only loosely follows Shakespeare’s story line, Wroblewski deftly portrays the emotions and complex relationships that the Sawtelle family have with each other, and the dogs that they breed. In the author’s interview in the back of the book, he talked a little about how he used his childhood home as the backdrop for his novel. He uses powerful metaphors, really capturing the scene’s beauty and yet, casting a mist around it that almost makes it seem like a magical place.
One of the gems of this book is the story of the dogs, and how they play into Edgar’s life. I especially loved the relationship between Edgar and his best dog, Almondine. She is Edgar’s voice, his emotional compass, and his very best friend. She seems to be the eyes and ears of what is not said on the Sawtelle farm, giving a “voice” to the ghosts and mystery of the place. Wroblewski takes his time in the novel to explain the breeding and development of the extraordinary Sawtelle dogs, a dog that was actually bred for personality, not appearance. This provided a welcome place to dwell within the novel when it became too tragic. Like the characters in the novel, the dogs are the focus when all goes wrong. It binds the family together, for good and bad.
On the downside, this book is a tragedy. If you’ve read Hamlet, then you know that the book cannot possibly end happily. *If you haven’t read it, then skip this last bit.* However, unlike Shakespeare’s masterpiece, we get to know more about the mental state of Edgar when he dies. I felt a sense of serenity about him, and really felt happy for him. It was as though all the trouble and the drama were forgotten; he could be at peace with those he loved best.
This book may not be a beachside read, but it is a beautiful retelling of a timeless classic. It is definitely worth picking up.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann won the National Book Award for Fiction 2009 for good reason. In a series of interconnected short stories, McCann paints a diverse picture of New York City in the 70s. McCann has the magical ability to capture the heart of both a rich woman grieving the loss of her son and a prostitute grieving the loss of her daughter. He is able to present each character with brutal honesty but at the same time extreme compassion.
Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, is a book about NYC in the 1970’s that centers around one day in the life of several characters, and a moment that brings them together in unpredictable ways. While well written, this book was a seriously depressing book for me. People abused drugs, experienced poverty and unfair treatment from those around them, were killed, abused and were abused. And through it all, there was almost nothing at the end to inspire hope. I was happy to have finished it.
This book, while not my cup of tea, did have some good parts to point out. McCann’s character, Corrigan, was an interesting person to follow in this book. I loved his embodiment of God’s word, truly giving of all that he had in mind, body, and worldly possessions. I loved watching his internal struggle of trying to decide whom he loved more, Christ or Adelita. And what’s more, I appreciated his ability to look past wanting to do what he liked, and instead liked what he did. I also enjoyed reading from the perspective of the tight rope walker. McCann created a conflict within me through this character because, though the majority of the book is doom and gloom, the tightrope walker casts the light of beauty and optimism over the mayhem that ensues below him. I wanted to stop reading, and yet even I was drawn to see more of the book through his eyes.
In the end though, the doom and gloom of Tillie Henderson’s story caught up with me. It was as if McCann chose every bad thing that could ever happen to a person, and then acted them out on Tillie. It felt overdone and overplayed, and by the time Tillie hung herself, I could only feel glad to have her out of the story so we could all finally have a little peace.
Here’s the bottom line – if you like melodrama and want something to make you feel better about your own life, then this book is for you. Otherwise, take a pass on this one.
Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan is a collection of short stories written about several African populations, from the point of the child. I think that Akpan summed up his novel well, so I’m going to quote him. He said, “I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet.” This is exactly how I feel about his novel. What do any of us in America really know about people living in Africa? Sure, if you get up early on the weekends, there are telethons to “help the starving children of Africa.” There are news stories about the wars, the starvation, the AIDS crisis, complete with pictures of children with distended bellies and dirty, tear-streaked faces. This is the Africa we know. And it’s G-rated in comparison to Akpan’s novel. You would rather not read it, but for the sake of the reality in which Akpan depicts.
My favorite story was the one entitled, “Luxurious Hearses.” In it, a Muslim teenager is trying to escape from his war-torn city in the north to his father’s Born-Again Christian home in the south. I loved seeing how all the different religions converged on this bus, and how old traditions collided with new ideas. **Spoiler Alert** Akpan skillfully lured us into loving Jubril, the extremist Muslim hero, by showing his human side to us. Most of us know about biracial children, but Akpan shows a different version of this in his story. Jubril is bi-religious, his mother being Muslim and his father being Christian. Akpan shows how we all hide parts of ourselves that might make people loathe us. Though he hides his Muslim self, he struggles to try to understand the Christian self he is portraying. He feels much of the same struggle that biracial children feel in the U.S.; never being fully accepted into any one race. Because he is baptized, his Muslims friends can only see him as an evil Christian, and because he is missing his right hand, the bus full of Christians cannot see anything but an evil Muslim before them. Akpan shows us the similarity in the two religions, which really focus on finding salvation in doing right by others, and yet, their hatred of each other. When he is killed at the end of the story, I felt true shock. I think I was expecting the happy ending, even though I couldn’t fathom what he would do when he got to his fatherland. So beautiful was Akpan’s writing, I could really feel Jubril’s peace in his acceptance of himself before his death.
Everyone should read this book, because though the stories may be fictional, the people in them are not. Akpan’s children are real children. This book is depressing, painful, gut-wrenching, and it is also the responsibility of people to know.
And Annie leaned back her head and closed her eyes and thought, there is nothing but this. No other time nor place nor being than now and here and him and us. And no earthly point in calculating consequence or permanence or right or wrong, for all, all else, was as nothing to the act. It had to be and would be and was. (pp 386-387, mass paperback)I mean, seriously? What is that paragraph? It was just too much. Also, while I'm not totally opposed to being blunt about sex, sometimes Evans was so graphic that I felt like I was reading a cheesy romance novel, which I do think this book is more than that.
Well, although Tom Booker is, in every respect, a real character, there is an important mythological aspect to him and to the story. He is, if you like, an immortal, the redemptive angel, the man in the white hat. There is a rule about such characters: when their work is done, they have to move on. They cannot hang around and 'mix it' with the mortals. For Annie and Grace to be free to get on with their lives, for the healing process to be properly complete, the healer-angel figure has to move on. Of course, he will live on forever in their hearts -- and in the new child that is born at the end of the story.