Archive for January, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

American readers have long been enchanted by books about dogs and other domestic animals; witness the recent popularity of a simple story about a badly behaved golden retriever named Marley, whose author must be happily stunned by the success of his creation. I enjoyed reading the slim volume when it was first published, and I even gave it as a gift to some of my dog-loving friends.

But this review is not about Marley or for that matter Lassie or even Rin Tin Tin. It is a serious first novel by a serious novelist who demands to be taken seriously. In his widely acclaimed book, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski has created a landscape of beauty and simplicity and peopled it with memorable characters who share much the same qualities as their surroundings.

Edgar, a 14-year-old boy born with normal hearing but without the ability to utter a sound, has found a way to communicate with those around him by means of a sign language of his own design. His family is part of a long tradition of breeders and trainers of a remarkable line of dogs famous for their qualities of obedience, loyalty, faithfulness, intelligence, and companionship. Potential owners are scrutinized with the same care as is expended on adoptive parents, and they are willing to travel great distances and pay highly for the privilege of bringing a Sawtelle dog into the family.

Despite his handicap, Edgar lives an idyllic childhood at the farm in Northern Wisconsin where hard work is shared and love makes the work bearable. The boy goes to school, and his mother’s dream for his future includes a college education. A major portion of his education is acquired on site as he assists with the training of the dogs placed in his care. One of his important assignments is to name the dogs and to this task he puts forward a great deal of effort, poring through the encyclopedias for fitting names.

Less than a third of the way through the book, the story goes from the idyllic, to the heroic and finally, to the tragic when Edgar finds his beloved father, Gar, dying on the floor of the barn. That changes life forever for Edgar and for his mother, Trudy. The latter goes to pieces and begins to come back to life only with the arrival of Claude, Gar’s estranged ( and strange) brother. By the time Claude has begun to settle into life on the farm as well as a place in Trudy’s bed, Edgar begins to receive visits from his ghostly father who suggests that his earthly demise was neither natural nor accidental. If the plot sounds familiar, perhaps you have seen it before under the title of a certain Danish prince. Edgar knows that if he tells anyone of his suspicions, he will not be believed without having proof positive. Like that prince, the boy is haunted and torn between his wish to avenge his father’s death and to see his mother comforted.

When a series of events culminates in an even greater tragedy, Edgar is forced to flee the farm and make his own way across the rural wilderness of Wisconsin. Along the way, he and the three dogs who accompany him experience enough hair-raising adventures and heart-warming encounters to keep the reader on edge through many chapters. More than once I wanted the book to end just because I was sure that Edgar and his dogs were in the right place and would do well to stay put.

However, Wroblewski was not yet finished with his tale and I eagerly anticipated the wrap-up. I stayed with him to the final word and realized the truth of the adage “it ain’t over ’til it’s over.” True to its Shakespearean heritage, the end comes only when it is time for the end to come, and by then the reader is exhausted after an emotional experience. It was a tough journey, but I lived to tell about it. I also learned more about dogs than I ever expected to know from an author who has a good deal of knowledge and surely did a lot of research. I heartily recommend this book to any reader willing to travel through uncharted country and open to meeting uncommon characters along the way.

Deception’s Daughter by Cordelia Frances Biddle

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Deception’s Daughter, a Martha Beale Mystery, captivates one’s imagination and transports one to another time. The narrative goes on as if in a play. Descriptive scenes and passages really bring you back to Philadelphia in the 1800’s.

The main character, Martha Beale, surpasses even Nancy Drew and Jessica (Angela Lansbury) in “Murder She Wrote.” The times remind one of Dickens’ scenes in England. Descriptions of the countryside, the poorhouses and the city are very realistic. The plot is rich with romance as well as intrigue. The surprise ending leaves the reader wanting more story to follow the characters involved.

I found this a fascinating read and look forward to reading more of Cordelia Frances Biddle’s books.

One Fifth Avenue–when is enough enough?

Monday, January 19th, 2009

We have grown so accustomed to hearing such numerical terms as ‘billion” and “trillion” in the past few months that “million” has almost lost its cache, despite the fact that most of us will never see that many figures attached to anything belonging to us. A company such as AIG has had the chutzpah to petition the government for a bailout of 70 billion dollars ( and rising) even while it rewards its executives with huge bonuses and treats them to wildly extravagant retreats.

Banks have been losing billions, our national debt totals in the trilliions, and meanwhile many of us who have been prudent are worried about paying our monthly mortgages and car payments. We ask our “financial experts” how a wealthy country like ours ever got itself into such a bind, and we shudder when these same experts are unable to explain it using standard models of economics. If they don’t know, who does?

I’ve read so many recently published economic tomes that I decided to take a break and do some light reading. I have never watched “Sex in the City,” nor have I watched the film, but the book I settled on as my light fare was One Fifth Avenue, by Candace Bushnell, the author of SitC. I had seen it listed in the NY Times book review section and decided to indulge my senses with something akin to a hot fudge sundae rather than a serving of brain food. By so doing, I learned what many of the learned economists seem to have overlooked in their quest for enlightenment.

At first I was overwhelmed by the extent of self-indulgence ot the characters, most of whom truly believe that they are entitled to all their excessive behavior, whether it is sexual or monetary. Nothing is too over-the-top if it provides pleasure or profit. Sadly, eventually there is no satisfaction to be had in anything so long as the possibility exists that there is yet more to be had. The setting of the novel is, of course, New York City, and the main characters are the super rich or s-r wannabes. The competition to be wealthiest, best looking, best dressed or best anything (or everything) guides their lives and actions and finally takes over their souls.

Men in this setting become obsessed with increasing their wealth, and women are determined to boost their egos by displaying it. Lavish co-op apartments with walk-in closets the size of some middle income family ranch homes are lined with shelves just for the dozens of pairs of Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik and other designer name brand shoes. The wives of the super-rich don’t even darken the doorways of department stores because they employ fashion consultants to choose their clothes, which can be sent to their homes and tried on in comfort and privacy.

Husbands spend their days in conferences and sometines in planes as they jet around the world seeking out ever more profitable (and often questionable) deals. Their wives, meanwhile, devote their time to charitable causes such as fund drives to promote the arts and lunching with the ladies at fashionable spots where they can spot each other and check out the outfits. They also spend hours at the health club working off the calories acquired by the other activities.

I would not want to spend too much of my time following such trivial pursuits, but I must admit to the guilty pleasure of enjoying the few hours I did spend visiting One Fifth. And I did not leave that address empty-handed. I came away with a better understanding of why we are mired in the financial morass in which we find ourselves. So long as men and women are so driven to acquire everything their hearts desire and so long as they are able to achieve this shallow goal without anyone regulating their overwhelming greed, the door remains open to the kinds of results we are seeing. Maybe our revered economists need to read about what drives the machine that causes the greed that causes individuals to sell their souls before they can apply the brakes that make it impossible for a few people to own so much that there’s little left for everyone else.

“The World is Curved… Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy” by David M. Smick

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

Alan Greenspan referred to this book, The World is Curved… Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy by David M. Smick, as “An essential read… an insightful and entertaining book.” This does describe the book, but although revealing an unbelievable amount of background trading and speculating and facts, still does not enlighten the novice on world economics. In fact, the “waters seem murkier.” One of Smick’s quotes is that of a Chinese executive on fishing and monetary policies, “The best fishing takes place in murky waters.” The book does awaken the reader to the very wide scope of risk and danger in world economics today. Especially impressive is the fact revealed that China has large amounts of bad debt hidden away; Japan makes do with a very low interest rate, prompting Japanese housewives to invest overseas via the computer, and the great losses taxpayers suffer in almost all developed countries.

Smick entertains us with observations on the clothing and mannerisms of the great in economic and political circles around the world. He doles out the dry and startling facts with a light, optimistic touch. Smick also points out a most encouraging fact, that the United States has done more for the poor of the world, especially in China, than has been done at any time in history. A middle class of workers is emerging in China, rather than oceans of poverty-stricken families, and this is also happening in other countries. This far surpasses the old handouts to Africa, China, and other third world countries.

I recommend the book highly. However, I still feel anxious about the world economy, whether the world is flat or curved. It seems to me that really bad debtors, such as very poor countries and big banks and corporations, get away with it just by declaring they are destitute or bankrupt. The rest of us not only have to pay their price, but do not get any breaks with normal family finances. What a world we live in!