One-Minute Book Reviews

September 3, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’ With a Key to ‘Hamlet’ Characters Represented in the Novel

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel
By David Wroblewski
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Edgar Sawtelle has spent his childhood on a mid-20th-century Wisconsin farm that raises its own breed of dogs, known as “Sawtelle dogs,” for private buyers. Born mute, Edgar communicates with his parents and others through sign language while raising his first litter of pups. But an air of menace seeps into his peaceful life when, in the summer of his 14th year, his father dies after a paternal uncle named Claude moves in with the family. Edgar vows to learn the truth about his father’s death and, when his effort ends in another disaster, flees with three of his dogs, hiding out in the Chequamegon National Forest. The plot of this first novel by David Wroblewski has similarities to that of Hamlet, where corpses litter the stage at the end of the play. So the question is not just whether Edgar will learn how his father died but how many people — or dogs — will die by the last page.

A Note for Book Clubs:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has 562 pages in its hardcover edition — twice as many as an average novel, which has about 250 pages — and Stephen King has said that he “spent 12 happy evenings” with the book. So it’s probably safe to say that some book-group members won’t finish it. If you’re reading the novel for a group, you might want to deal with this issue up front — for example, by agreeing to read the book over a summer. If you lead a club, you might also want to let members know how much of the book they would need to read to get a sense of the whole. Would the prologue do it? If not, how much would members need to read?

A Key to the Hamlet Characters in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle:
Some of the humans and dogs in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle are surrogates for characters in Hamlet. The human stand-ins include: Edgar Sawtelle (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark), Trudy Sawtelle (Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother), Claude Sawtelle (Claudius, King of Denmark and Hamlet’s paternal uncle), Gar Sawtelle (the late King Hamlet of Denmark and Hamlet’s father), Doc Papineau (Polonius, Lord Chamberlain), and Glen Papineau, son of Doc (Laertes, son of Polonius). The canine stand-ins include Almondine (Ophelia, daughter of Polonius), Tinder and Baboo (courtiers Rosenkrantz, sometimes spelled Rosencrantz), Forte (Fortinbras) and Essay (Horatio). This is a starter list. If you see other parallels, why not mention them in the comments section on this post so that book clubs can benefit from your observations?

Questions for Discussion:

1. Early readers of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle characterized the novel in different ways. Publishers Weekly called it “a literary thriller.” [Feb. 18, 2008] Kirkus Reviews said it was “an Odyssean journey.” [April 15, 2008] Novelist Mark Doty described it as a hybrid: “both ghost story and melodrama” and “a coming-of-age tale.” [Dust jacket] How would you characterize the novel?

2. The plot of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has obvious similarities to that of Hamlet, which critics often describe as “a revenge tragedy.” Would that label fit this book? Is the novel about revenge? If not, what is the novel “about”?

3. David Wroblewski told Publishers Weekly: “It was not my intention to do a literal retelling [of Hamlet]. It was more interesting to allow the stories to coincide where they could. Ghosts and haunting and poison are motifs of the Elizabethan stage.” [PW Daily @ pw.com, April 14, 2008] How well does his “nonliteral” approach work?

4. For someone who didn’t intend to do a “literal retelling” of Hamlet, Wroblewski lays on the parallels pretty thickly. Apart from similarities between characters, many scenes resemble those in Shakespeare’s play. Near the end of the chapter entitled “The Texan,” Edgar stages a demonstration of his dogs’ talents that corresponds to the play-within-a-play that Hamlet believes will prove his uncle killed his father. [The chapter begins on page 311.] If you’re familiar with Hamlet, what other scenes resemble those in the play?

5. Reviewers often overpraise novels that allude to great works of fiction, because the allusions can give a gloss of sophistication pop fiction or worse. If you’ve read the reviews for this novel, do you think that might have happened here? Did the book deserve so much praise? Or were critics perhaps too influenced by the Hamlet parallels or other factors?

6. A major challenge of writing a 562-page novel is keeping up a strong pace. Does Wroblewski do this? Did you find the pace lagging in any places? Where?

7. Wroblewski takes a risk by telling part of his story from the point of view of dogs and part from that of humans. Does the risk pay off? Would the novel have been stronger if he had stuck to the point of view of one species? [Sections told from a canine point of view include the chapters called “Almondine” that begin on page 30 and page 460.]

8. The author takes another risk by introducing paranormal elements, such as Edgar’s conversation with his dead father. [Beginning on page 235 with, “He saw a man …”] Apart from reinforcing the parallels to Hamlet, what – if anything – do these scenes add to the novel? Would the book have been stronger or weaker without them?

9. Stephen King said of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, “Dog-lovers in particular will find themselves riveted by this story, because the canine world has never been explored with such imagination and emotional resonance.” [Blurb.] If you love dogs, do you agree or disagree? If you disagree, what books about dogs are better? You might consider fiction such as Jack London’s White Fang and nonfiction such as John Grogan’s Marley and Me.

10. It’s been said that all dog-lovers fall into one of two groups: those who think dogs are wonderful animals and those who think they are furry, four-footed people. Did you sense that Wroblewski falls into either camp?

Vital statistics:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95. Published: June 2008 www.edgarsawtelle.com

A review of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on August 28, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/28. It is saved both with the August posts and in the “Novels” category on the site. The review takes the form of a parody of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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August 28, 2008

Review of Oprah’s Latest Book Club Pick, ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,’ the First Novel by David Wroblewski

Get thee to a kennel! A mute boy named Edgar finds his Ophelia in a dog named Almondine in story set in a hamlet in Wisconsin

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

To read, or not to read
The Edgar Sawtelle book
That is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler
In the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of
Outrageous twaddle,
And moralizing, too,
In sections told just from
The point of view of dogs,
One of them a stand-in
For Ophelia herself –
Her name is Almondine –
Because this novel is
A sort of canine Hamlet
That’s set in — of all places –
A hamlet in Wisconsin,
Or nobler to skip
A story you might like
Especially if you miss
The big, fat novels that
James Michener used to write.
To read, perchance to find
That this is your dream book:
Ay, there’s the rub!
Unless you are seeking
The kind of happy ending
That Hamlet doesn’t have
Because the author doesn’t give you
What you don’t find in the play:
A tale where no one dies.
It’s true, the book is not
The play in any way.
No poison-tipped sword looms,
A syringe is used instead.
And as for Rosenkrantz
and Guildenstern, his friend,
Like Ophelia
They have four feet and fur,
Though Hamlet is a boy, mute,
The Edgar of the title,
Who sees his father’s ghost,
A paranormal twist
In Edgar’s earthbound-life.
Morosely, Hamlet said –
Remember? – that conscience
Makes cowards of us all.
Which is not true of Edgar.
But will his morals save him
Or send him to his doom?
No spoilers you’ll find here –
The Bard supplies them all.

[Note: This review is not intended as a strict parody of Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy. If you've read Hamlet and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and can do better, why not leave your parody in the comments section on this post? For more on the novel, visit www.edgarsawtelle.com.]

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 27, 2008

Reviving Ophelia as a Dog — ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:24 pm
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Ophelia has four feet and fur in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Ophelia has four feet and fur in 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle'

You know how I wrote yesterday about five books I was planning to read this week while dog-sitting for literary friends? Those books are going to have to wait a day or two. My friends left behind a copy of David Wroblewski’s first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco, 562 pp., $29.95) www.edgarsawtelle.com. And although I’ve been reading the over-the-top reviews of this bestseller for weeks, I’d somehow missed that – to oversimplify – this is a canine version of Hamlet in which a) Ophelia is a dog and b) the story is told partly from “Ophelia”’s point of view. Is Wroblewski’s novel closer to Shakespeare or Millie’s Book, the book former first lady Barbara Bush wrote in the voice of a White House spaniel? I will sort this out soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing this and other reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 9, 2008

Out, Damn’d Ferrari! Father Doesn’t Know Best in Liza Campbell’s ‘A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle’

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:16 am
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Hail falls on the family of a modern Thane of Cawdor

A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle. By Liza Campbell. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 323 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A Charmed Life is a high-class version of that deathless series in the Star, “Stars Without Make-up.” Instead of mascara-free actresses, this memoir gives us sobriety-free Scottish aristocrats.

At the age of 30, Hugh Campbell inherited the title of Thane of Cawdor and vast wealth that included two stately homes, four ruined castles and a hundred thousand acres of land. He promptly moved his wife and children from their estate in Wales to the family seat, Cawdor Castle, in the Scottish Highlands. The new home became his Dunsinane, or so it appears from A Charmed Life.

Hugh Campbell seems to have had a self-destructive romantic streak long before the move to Cawdor threw it into ionospheric relief. As the idea of free love had spread in the 1960s, he went “haywire with the frontrunners,” his daughter Liza writes:

“He dressed like a Restoration buck, wearing scarlet velvet jackets with black frogging, floppy cuffs and outsize buckles on his belts and shoes, the heels of which were covered in red patent leather to match the jacket.”

At Cawdor, the new thane devolved into an alcoholic, cocaine-addicted, serial adulterer who drove away his sainted first wife and deprived his son his birthright, his daughter says. He also smashed up a fleet of Jaguars and, insisting that the cause of his accidents lay in their faulty design, took to driving a lime-green Ferrari. His widow, his second wife, has disputed some of this in the British media. And Campbell sinks into pop-psychological goop when she tries to explain her father’s pathology: She says that when her paternal grandfather broke his wife’s toe, “he showed his son that physical abuse was an option” – as though there weren’t men who have seen such force without resorting to it or who resort to it without having seen it.

But Campbell is better reporter than analyst of her family’s woes, and she describes an offbeat cast of friends and relatives with a flair that occasionally resembles Nancy Mitford’s in Love in a Cold Climate. A friend of her grandfather’s preferred ferns to toilet paper and, when he traveled south from his Scottish palace, “took along a suitcase packed with bracken fronds, since London hotels were unable to cater for this particular requirement.” An aunt met her husband at Oxford “where he would wander through the quads in a top hat with a pet mouse that ran round the brim.”

Such vivid glimpses of a vanishing world help to make this book more than another memoir of an imploding family. So do Campbell’s wit, sharp observations on life and refusal to tack on the artificially upbeat ending of so many American memoirs of family turbulence. Her chilling comment on a hunting accident that left a farmer’s teenage son with terrible groin injuries sums up a theme of this book:

“It was my first realization that something profound and permanent can happen in an instant and, worse, never be undone. It took a while to realize that life doesn’t deliver a single such instance, but an endless series of them.”

Best line: “Of all the things drummed into us, the only ones with any application to the modern world were the importance of being polite to strangers, and a sketchy knowledge of trees.”

Worst line: “Something that is seldom acknowledged is how incredibly common addiction is – maybe as high as one in three.” Don’t they get Oprah in the U.K.?

Published: October 2007 www.thomasdunnebooks.com

Read an excerpt at www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/23/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 23, 2008

Easter at Cawdor Kirk – Quote of the Day From Liza Campbell’s ‘A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle’

Filed under: Memoirs,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:23 pm
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Liza Campbell, daughter of the 25th Thane of Cawdor, writes of living with the ghosts of Banquo and others in her engaging memoir A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $24.95) www.thomasdunnebooks.com. In this passage she describes attending Sunday services at Cawdor Kirk, a stone church built by the 12th Thane, with her family:

“The minister’s sermon was as unedited as it was stern, typically commencing, ‘This week I was inspired to put pen to paper on the subject of babbling fools …’ followed by a pause as he glowered at us all over the top of his spectacles. A reading would follow that was most likely about Lot’s wife, or Job and his malignant ulcers. The Presbyterian God was a dour one who must have thought up the rainbows while he had a temperature and was not feeling quite himself. The songs we sang were all willfully obscure works from forgotten backwaters of the hymn book….

“In keeping with Presbyterian tradition, communion was taken once a year only, at Easter, when we could look forward to a hunk of real bread and some port. The service would finish off with the congregation stumbling through that cheery foot-tapper ‘By the Light of burrrning Martyrs, Christ thy bloody steps we trace’, with my father singing it in a basso profundo that sounded like heavy furniture being dragged across the floor. In a pew at right angles to ours, Mrs. King from the laundry at Cawdor would make no effort to sing. Ever. She would wave to us gaily while popping a succession of hard-boiled sweets into her mouth and spend the rest of her time flattening out and folding up the cellophane wrappers – as if she could never fully relax from her laundress’s habits.”

Some of my ancestors are buried in the kirkyard of Cawdor Kirk, shown in a picture that does not come from A Charmed Life. Campbell was the last person born at Cawdor Castle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda (text and church photo). All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 14, 2007

Funny Gifts for Readers — Jane Austen Action Figures, Librarian Tattoos, Shakespearean Insults and More

Shakespeare is among the writers who inspire gifts that librarians and others think you’ll want to give, at least if you’re a “boiling hutch of beastliness”

By Janice Harayda

All week I’ve been posting serious gift ideas for readers along with the usual reviews. Today I’m here to entertain you. These gifts didn’t make the cut:

Jane Austen Action Figure I couldn’t find a reliable site that stocks the Jane Austen bobblehead dolls that librarians and others have seen. But the Library of Congress shop www.loc.gov/shop/ sells this plastic Jane Austen Action Figure (which comes with a quill pen and writing desk) for $8.50. Austen can’t do battle against Emily Dickinson and the Knights of the Nineteenth Century only because the Belle of Amherst doesn’t have her own action figure (though there’s a plush toy you can find on the Web if you’re determined). Be sure to read all the reader reviews on Amazon www.amazon.com, which also has the doll shown here, if this one tempts you. One critic faults the Jane Austen Action Figure for flimsy construction, including an insecure base and an arm that breaks off easily. Well, what did you expect? Austen died at the age of 41, and this one may have a correspondingly short life span.

Librarian Tattoos In January a Los Angeles librarian won the Newbery Award for a young-adult novel that has the word “scrotum” on the first page. Now the city has given us another pacesetter in a product described as wash-off “librarian tattoos.” “Librarian stereotypes are as old and outdated as microfiche,” says the online catalog for the Library Store at Los Angeles Public Library says. “Nowadays you’re just as likely to see your local librarian driving a Harley as a Honda Accord.” That must explain why the library is selling a 3-1/2″ x 4-1/2″ hardcover book of nontoxic wash-off tattoos for $8, several of which you can see at right. “Put one in a prominent place to prove once and for all that ‘smart’ and ‘cool’ are not mutually exclusive!” the library says in its catalog www.lfla.org/cgi-bin/store/.

Shakespeare’s Insults Magnet Set Are you the kind of person who loves to insult friends with barbs like “thou smell of mountain goat”? Or possibly you “bolting-hutch of beastliness”? If so, these multicolored magnets are for you. A set of 33 insults costs $15.95 at Shakespeare’s Den www.shakespearesden.com, a literary gift site that has items related — and I use the term loosely — to many authors. Among them: George Orwell magnetic finger puppets that you can put on your refrigerator or use for purposes such as — well, let’s stop here.

Source: http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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