The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Unlike many of the books I pick up to read, I had not read anything about this one before I borrowed it from the library. It was an impulse pick. I need to do that more often.
Edgar is a young boy who is born to Trudy and Gar who live on a farm in rural Wisconsin. They are dog breeders and their dogs are named after them. Edgar is unable to speak but can hear and learns to sign. He works on the farm and loves the work. He trains the dogs with his mother and father and as he grows up is learning more about what the Sawtelle dogs really meant to his family and will mean to him. Edgar is also brought up by the faithful Almondine, a dog who is wise and kind to the young Edgar and steers him from harm.
Ostensibly the story is the Hamlet story retold. That, however, does it an injustice. It is beautifully written, nuanced and measured in its language. The voice of the novel got me as soon as I began reading and I found it drew me along for the whole length of the story. I was glad that I came to this book without knowing anything about it because the way that it developed the plot was so careful that I could draw my own conclusions; it was not until I was some way in that I realised the Hamlet plot was developing. It also revealed Edgar’s inability to speak carefully without being too obvious. I appreciated that I was allowed to ‘discover’ the story in this way.
When Edgar’s idyllic existence is brought to a crashing halt with the death of his beloved father the raw emotion is overpowering. It has none of the existential angst that Hamlet can have, nor does Edgar spend time navel gazing, he simply deals with it and grieves. It is not until his uncle Claude really draws in that we see what is about to happen. Edgar’s time in the wilderness on the run is told with a level of detail that is mesmerising. We believe that he could survive in the way that he does and the details about the wildlife around him add to the authenticity without bogging down the tale. When Edgar does make mistakes he deals with them with a stoicism that makes the reader admire him again. He takes an enforced rest and we can then see him through the eyes of a stranger who comes to admire him and who is left richer for having helped him. Henry is a lonely and morose man who tells Edgar that he is not trustworthy but Edgar proves to him that he is and allows him to learn that he is better than he believed.
The book really comes alive in the relationship between Edgar and his dogs, three of whom go with him into the wild. The dogs are finely written and their reliance on and love for Edgar is touching. At the very end it is his love for the Sawtelle dogs that proves to be his undoing. The ending will have you wrung out, even though you know how it has to end given the plot development.
The fact that this is David Wroblewski’s first book is extraordinary. It is assured and poetic and is a book that shows its love of language throughout.
I am not usually described as a dog lover, but this book certainly gave me a better appreciation of them. For more on this see David Wroblewski’s blog.

Film Review: The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

I didn’t even know it was being made into a film. Would be interesting though as the book was lovely. Whimsical and charming.

A Little Blog of Books

The Hundred-Year-Old ManLast week, I was lucky enough to attend a special screening of the film adaptation of ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ at the Soho Hotel in London ahead of its general release on Friday. Thanks to the likes of Steig Larsson and Henning Mankell, Sweden is generally more famous for producing atmospheric crime fiction. However, the comic novel by Jonas Jonasson has been a worldwide hit and has been translated into more than thirty languages with more than six million copies sold since 2009. The film is likely to match the book’s success across the globe this summer having already broken box office records in Sweden when it was released last December.

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Kingdom Come J.G. Ballard

After finishing this book I came across this Slatearticle online. It shows images that the photographer took of abandoned shopping malls and bemoans the loss of these ‘community centers.’
Ballard may well disagree.
His book, Kingdom Come, begins with a man who visits a town in Middle England, along the motorway by Heathrow, to attend his father’s funeral. While there he stumbles upon something much more sinister. The Metro Centre has become an unofficial church with its own high priest, it’s own soldiers, and violence aplenty.
He, as an advertising man, is perplexed and enthrall led and for a while become embroiled in the non-politics, politics of the town. A Fascist state ensues where immigrants are treated like footballs, figuratively and literally and citizens worship the twin gods of sport and consumerism. A small group tries to exploit this and Richard becomes an unofficial part of it all as advisor to David Cruise, the minor celebrity cum God of the mall.
It ends in violence, madness and chaos but he does find the killer of his father.
Ballard’s wry observations about middle class aspirations are well made in this account of modern life’s undercurrents. Indeed, ‘the suburbs dream of violence.’20140626-074109-27669763.jpg

The Wall- Marlene Haushofer

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As part of my attempt to read more books in translation I have just finished the breathtaking work, The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. I was shocked to realize that it is a classic of European Feminist literature but in a way that is a good thing as I came to it with no expectations about genre or canon position.
An unnamed woman is trapped in the mountains after an invisible wall drops down freezing those on the other side to statues. She has only a dog with her at first for company but soon chances on other animals. Her life from that point on is about survival. She sets about the practical tasks of daily existence and shows herself to be resourcefully, strong and hardy. It was certainly interesting to read about how she managed to provide for herself but the more interesting story was her emotional survival.
She learns to view her past through a lense of distance like the binoculars she uses to check on the world on the other side of the wall. Her relationship with her companion animals is tender, caring and hard won. She deals with adversity pragmatically and even during illness and depression we see her tough core keep her going. The book has some similarity to the Robinson Crusoe story but contains much more compassion and yet a clear eyed look at what is wrong with our world. Like Crusoe she is alone but does not subjugate others to her will, she cares for her companions even when she is terribly ill herself.
Her voice was what drew me on, I really wanted to read her story and her lack of self pity and strength of will made for an amazing story. She found many solutions, was able to be easy on herself when she was unable to do something and yet forced herself to endure extreme hardship out of duty to her animals.
The narrative has a distinct lack of sentimentality and an unflinching look at what humanity is really about. An existential tale if ever I have read one.
Amazing.

Stars in their Eyes?

In an article in The Guardian today theatre critic Lyn Gardner writes about the reduction of reviews to their star rating. This can be a positive when given a four or five star rating but if given a three, Gardner is concerned that it may deter theatre goers who do not fully read a review but instead, simply skip to the rating and decide that three is not worth spending money on. She does have a point, we read things quickly these days and find ourselves skimming for essential information. This may mean that we miss. Uncles that a reviewer really wants us to consider. Their job is to review, as she rightly points out, not to sell tickets. Our job, if we want reviews to guide us, is to read carefully.
Personally I prefer to ignore reviews of plays until after I have seen them and made up my own mind. Some corroborate and some contradict. That is fine. The reviews are a bit subjective. Sure, they are more experienced in that area than me and they do have tried and tested criteria on which to base their assessment; I just may be seeing the whole play differently to them. I like to go on fresh and then ponder it. I may connect with a play for personal reasons or because I valued ( or otherwise) the dialogue, accent, set, plot above elements that spoiled, or made it, for them.
My point really is to agree with Gardner, we should not be swayed by a three star review, especially if it is only one review, and avoid seeing something we may connect with on a different level.

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Not more bloody war books

This year should be designated the year of the war book. With the anniversary of the outbreak of WWI and next year’s anniversary of the Australian landings at Gallipoli we will see increasingly large numbers of books being published, and republished, about war.
While many of them may well cover old ground a few should come out that will be interesting and original takes on the theme. So I thought I’d share a few of my favourite war stories; ones that I enjoyed reading, not because they were about war, or generals stuffing up and leaving poor Tommies in the lurch, but because they were about the trials of the human spirit.

All Quiet on the Western Front- Erich Remarque- this novel universalises the experience of war, showing the perspective of a young German soldier.

The Regeneration Trilogy- Pat Barker- these three novels focussing on our most famous war poets Owen and Sassoon, really show the damage that war can do to the psyche and give a glimpse of what a state early treatment for ‘neurasthenia’ patients was like. It shows a world in the midst of enormous social change and is wonderfully written.

Of course one of the best ways of beginning to understand the war is through poetry. Owen’s war poems are brutally honest, painful and sad reminders of the fact that these were often very young men who died in awful circumstances.

Maus

This is one of the more famous graphic novels, so I was very happy when I had the chance to put it on the VCE text list this year for year 12. Maus is a novel that, while dealing with the aftermath of the holocaust, is primarily concerned with the relationship between a father and a son. Art is trying to understand his irascible father Vladek, a survivor of Auschwitz. We see Vladek as a miserly, mean spirited man who counts the cost of everything and is especially hard on his unfortunate second wife. He holds rigid views and is quick to anger.

Art visits his father in an attempt to understand him, and through this, understand his upbringing and his mother, who is now dead. We are taken back in time to the initial meeting of Vladek and Anya and we see a very different young man. He was confident, well-connected and seemed about to fulfill a bright promise. Of course, history tells us that this was not to be so for a young Polish Jew and this is where Vladek’s story really begins. We follow his trials throughout the war and his love for the fragile Anya. The couple marry and have children and do their best to survive and keep their family together. Anya’s fragility is highlighted early in the relationship, so the reader can only wonder what a woman like this will do when what must happen eventually does.  Whilst we learn of Art’s parent’s ordeals we keep being brought to the present to remind us of the current situation between the surviving family members. This temporal shift allows the story to avoid overburdening the reader with the sadness of the plight of the Poles and foregrounds their attempts to survive and them moves back to the present thereby diffusing the emotion. The narrative allows us to consider how families manage to live through their tough times and what traumatic events do to people. Self image is a powerful theme and we see what can happen to someone when their self image is unable to be reconciled with their situation.

Speigelman tells a tender and sad story of a young man seeking desperately to understand his father. The black and white drawings allow for a dimming of the emotion so as to avoid melodrama. The devices such as using cats for Nazis and mice for Polish Jews make the story seem like a fable at times, again, distancing the reader from excessive emotion, and yet the poignancy of the story is very strong. I cannot wait to see what my year twelve students make of this graphic novel. Art’s struggle is that of many young men trying to understand their parents and their parent’s generation. Art is unaware of the many events that made his parents who they were and his journey of understanding is universal.

For more on Maus see this review: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/culture-mulcher/2013/10/09/maus-at-town-hall-art-spiegelmans-history-of-comics-tour-de-force/

Trainspotting- Irvine Welsh

Just to be perverse I decided to read this in the most unlikely place possible. Given the subject matter I selected my holiday to sunny and relaxed Noosa, playground of hippies, triathletes and aging Victorians looking for a place in the sun but still wanting a healthy lifestyle to read this gritty, urban, in fact, downright disturbing book. It was certainly an antidote to place.

While the novel is not without its dark humour it left me disturbed but fully believing in the young men who were the novel’s antiheroes. Mark Renton, Sick Boy and Begbie were the damaged and disturbed young addicts who cut a swathe through Edinburgh night life in the 80s, a time of depressing, grey housing estates full of desperation and ugliness with the ever present threat of AIDs and the grinding poverty of its inhabitants. They are sociopathically aware of society’s ills and determined to burn up quickly. Their contempt for themselves and everyone else masks something a lot more complex. Their need. Unable to fully feel things they mask the pain and disappointment of their lives with whatever substance they can get their hands on. Everything, including other people, is there to be used.

Welsh’s critique of Edinburgh’s underclass is a critique of Britain at the time and is hopeless and sad as well as frightening. The boys are dangerous to others as much as to themselves and I found myself anxious at times for those who came into contact with them. The world of the novel is painfully drawn from the point of view of the main characters and a few of those in the inner circle and the reader is drawn in to their needs, lack of real motivations and aimless paths. The voices are written in strong vernacular and the rhythms of the speech are amazing at conveying the amoral thoughts of the protagonists. For all the horror it is an amazing novel to read and haunts you for quite some time afterwards. The insight into the pain and love of addiction is so strong that you almost feel it yourself.Image

Just don’t read it on a sunny Queensland holiday!

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Through a Window and Disappeared- Jonas Jonasson

Originally published in Swedish. I loved this book. It reminded me of Forrest Gump, the obvious comparison, but with more attitude. Alan Karlsson, our hero, was certainly an interesting companion, he was an explosives expert who had met Stalin, Churchill, Truman, Mao’s wife and just wanted to live an easy life. He sailed through the events of the 20th century as an impassive observer but through his observations the reader sees the history of the tumultuous century.
Alan’s 100th birthday arrives and he decides to depart. His journey takes us on a trip through time as well as space as we view his present and past along his journey. 
Alan is unfazed by meeting thugs who want to kill him for stealing, a foul mouthed lady who keeps an elephant, and drug dealers along the way. He draws similar outsider characters to him and forms an unlikely band who decide to share some stolen loot. We learn that he has travelled across the Himalayas on foot. Walked through much of revolutionary China, travelled with Churchill and advised many other world leaders. He also spent five years in a gulag and exploded a whole dock area.
Life is never dull around him and his life and trip are fantastic to read about. This is a book to be read in one sitting.

I seem to have read a few ‘journey’ books lately! maybe it’s time for a trip.Image

Review: Naked – Kevin Brooks.

Another one for the list! It’s getting very long.

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Synopsis from Goodreads.
London, 1976: a summer of chaos, punk, love . . . and the boy they called Billy the Kid.

It was the summer of so many things. Heat and violence, love and hate, heaven and hell. It was the time I met William Bonney – the boy from Belfast known as Billy the Kid.

I’ve kept William’s secrets for a long time, but now things have changed and I have to tell the truth. But I can’t begin until I’ve told you about Curtis Ray. Hip, cool, rebellious Curtis Ray. Without Curtis, there wouldn’t be a story to tell.

It’s the story of our band, of life and death . . . and everything in between.

Some of the best books I read are the ones I stumble on accidentally. I can’t even remember why I decided that I might like this book. I’m not a huge…

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