A Dog’s Tail: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

edgar sawtelle coverSeveral years ago, I read a beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing book about a boy and his dogs. I have recommended it to friends, loaned it to my fiancé’s son and give it a place of honor on my book shelf. The fact that Oprah chose it for one of her book club recommendations didn’t stir me to buy it; in fact, I didn’t even know Oprah had chosen it for her book club until I began writing this blog post. But since today, August 26, is “National Dog Day,” I thought it would be a good time to revisit The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski’s debut novel, was published in 2008 and became an international bestseller. (Thank you Oprah!) And for good reason. It’s a wonderful tale. To date, it’s the only book Wroblewski has published.

Trudy and Gar Sawtelle live in Wisconsin. They have developed and sell to approved buyers a very special breed of dog, a type of dog very nearly human in terms of communication ability. After a series of miscarriages, Trudy gives birth to Edgar.

Wroblewski never specifically defines what the Sawtelle breed looks like, so my dog Maggie will stand in.

“This will be his earliest memory. Red light, morning light. High ceiling canted overhead. Lazy click of toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until its cheeks pull back and a row of dainty front teeth bare themselves in a ridiculous grin.”

Born mute, Edgar nevertheless communicates with great effectiveness with his parents and with the dogs, particularly one named Almondine. And in the Sawtelles’ world, all is well until Gar’s brother, Claude, comes to stay on the farm.

If this sounds a bit Shakespearean to you, you are correct. Wroblewski borrows gently from Hamlet as you may have

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamletnoticed. Gertrude, Claudius, etc. And Speaking of HAMLET! What I wouldn’t give to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. He premiered in London’s West End last night. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/aug/25/hamlet-barbican-review-benedict-cumberbatch-imprisoned-prince  

But I digress. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle succeeds in – much as a great production of Hamlet, as the New York Times said,”exert(ing) a strong, seemingly effortless gravitational pull. The reader who has no interest in dogs, boys or Oedipal conflicts of the north woods of Wisconsin will nonetheless find these things irresistible. Pick up this book and expect to feel very, very reluctant to put it down.” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/13/books/13book.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The exposition I most love about this book is the times the author translates what the dogs are feeling.  At times, it is truly heart-breaking.

To her, the scent and the memory of him were one. Where it lay strongest, the distant past came to her as if that morning: Taking a dead sparrow from her jaws, before she knew to hide such things. Guiding her to the floor, bending her knee until the arthritis made it stick, his palm hotsided on her ribs to measure her breaths and know where the pain began. And to comfort her. That had been the week before he went away.

He was gone, she knew this, but something of him clung to the baseboards. At times the floor quivered under his footstep. She stood then and nosed into the kitchen and the bathroom and the bedroom-especially the closet-her intention to press her ruff against his hand, run it along his thigh, feel the heat of his body through the fabric.

Places, times, weather-all these drew him up inside her. Rain, especially, falling past the double doors of the kennel, where he’d waited through so many storms, each drop throwing a dozen replicas into the air as it struck the waterlogged earth. And where the rising and falling water met, something like an expectation formed, a place where he might appear and pass in long strides, silent and gestureless. For she was not without her own selfish desires: to hold things motionless, to measure herself against them and find herself present, to know that she was alive precisely because he needn’t acknowledge her in casual passing; that utter constancy might prevail if she attended the world so carefully. And if not constancy, then only those changes she desired, not those that sapped her, undefined her.

And so she searched. She’d watched his casket lowered into the ground, a box, man-made, no more like him than the trees that swayed under the winter wind. To assign him an identity outside the world was not in her thinking. The fence line where he walked and the bed where he slept-that was where he lived, and they remembered him.

 Read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle with your book club. Fair warning: it is a long work, and a dense one. GIve yourself time to savor the thoughts, the words, the emotions. The philosophy.
“I think it’s just as likely that someone could say that this place, right here, is heaven, hell and earth all at the same time. And we still wouldn’t know what to do differently. Everyone just muddles through, trying not to make too many mistakes […] Half the time we walk around in love with the idea of a thing instead of the reality of it. But sometimes things don’t turn out that way. You have to pay attention to what’s real, what’s in the world. Not some imaginary alternative, as if it’s a choice we could make.”
MENU
Since the setting is Wisconsin, I would focus my menu on Wisconsin foods. Cheese, brats, sausage. http://whoonew.com/2015/01/wisconsin-food-traditions/
But I also found in my research something called a Butter Burger that sounds quite good.  Here’s a recipe from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives:  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/better-butter-burger.html
MUSIC
In a previous blog, I posted a dog music list: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/vacation-my-dogs-life/. You could definitely go with that. Or if you want to get musical in another direction, you could opt for the music of Wisconsin’s own sons and daughters.
Al Jarreau
Les Paul
Liberace
Steve Miller
Woody Herman
MOVIE CASTING
According to a 2008 press release, Tom Hanks and the Divine O herself acquired the movie rights to The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, but I can’t find any more information about whether a film is actually being made.  It has all the elements of a great movie, so I hope it does come to fruition.
Gar: Jason Bateman
Claude: Robert Downey, Jr.
Trudy: Meg Ryan (I’d love to see her in this role)
Edgar: I don’t know. This might be a casting director’s dream and/or nightmare. A young Josh Hutcherson would have been perfect, but he’s aged out.
jason-bateman75meg ryan
Happy Reading & Eating!
Advertisements

Kennedyesque: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

leadkennedy2

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.

No one is a criminal.

No one is an addict.

No one is a failure.

The Sinclairs are athletic, tall and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins are square and our tennis serves are aggressive.

. . . We are Sinclairs.

No one is needy.

No one is wrong.

We live, at least in the summertime, on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts.

Perhaps that is all you need to know.

kennedys_gallery_04Perhaps it is not all we need to know. After that first page of We Were Liars (reprinted mostly above), I was definitely intrigued. Now, was I more intrigued in the story of the Sinclairs or in my hope that this would be about the Kennedys?

But it isn’t about the Kennedys.  It is about the three daughters of Tipper and Harris Sinclair. It is about Beechmont Island. It is about the children of the three daughters of Harris Sinclair and it is specifically about three of Harris’ grandchildren, plus one friend, who become their own small community: Cadence, Johnny, Mirren and Gat. “The family calls us four The Liars, and we probably deserve it. We are all nearly the same age, and we all have birthdays in the fall. Most years on the island, we’ve been trouble.

This is one of the “young adult” novels that somehow cross over to reach into adult land, maybe because it won the Goodreads

Totally gratuitous and off-topic photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. on the beach just because he was the best

Totally gratuitous and off-topic photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. on the beach just because he was the best

 Young Adult Choice award for 2014 and was on a host of bestseller lists. My book club just finished reading it for our meeting tonight. It’s a zippy read and once Cadence loses her memory due to an unexplained on-island incident during her 15th summer, the pages turn faster. What caused the memory loss? Why have Mirren, Johnny and Gat, her first love, abandoned her? Why have Harris’ three daughters, who rivaled Lear’s in terms of grasping and bitchiness, become tender and gentle toward one another? Why has Harris torn down the grand family manse of Clairmont and installed a monastic modern temple?

Apparently, E. Lockhart was inspired by Gone Girl to write We Were Liars. That implies a surprise ending. An ending which I will not give away. I will say, it wasn’t all that shocking. The book’s cover asks readers if they are asked about the ending to “just lie.” So perhaps I should say it was all that shocking?

It was fine. It was an easy book to read. But truthfully, no lying, if I were to recommend a summer read that reminds me of the Kennedys, I’d recommend Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. Or Dominic Dunne’s A Season in Purgatory. Or Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Water. Even Stephen King’s 11/22/63. All really good reads inspired by the Kennedys.

MENU

New England Clam Chowder:  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/the-past-and-future-of-nao-a-tale-for-the-time-being-by-ruth-ozeki/

S’mores Dip: instead of making regular s’mores, put chocolate in a ceramic dish and cover it with marshmallows. Bake until the marshmallows puff and brown and then serve with graham crackers to dip.

Our lovely hostess at book club served the following, summery menu:

Deviled Shrimp

Guacamole with blue corn chips

Green bean and potato salad

Crab cakes with tomato jam

Slow roasted tomato with mozzarella and basil

MUSIC

This novel seems like it would be set in the 40s or 50s, but it’s modern day. Nevertheless . . . I would play some classic, old school music: Cole Porter’s soundtrack for High Society, the Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra musical adaptation of The Philadelphia Story set in Newport, R.I.

MOVIE CASTING

It looks like We Were Liars has been sold to be made into a movie.

Harris Sinclair:  Tom Wilkinson

Tipper Sinclair:  Blythe Danner

Penny: Kate Hudson

Bess: Reese Witherspoon

Carrie:  MIchelle Pfeiffer

Cadence:  Chloe Grace Moretz

Mirren:  Dakota Fanning

Johnny:  Chord Overstreet

Gat:  Suraj Sharma

Happy Reading!

Call Me Lili: The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

VF Kaitlyn        Lili_Elbe_1926

What a time to read The Danish Girl. a novel about the first transsexual operations!  What good fortune for the producers of The Danish Girl movie starring last year’s Academy Award-winning actor! What a cosmic shift in the zeitgeist!

Published in 2000, The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff fictionalizes the real life story of Einar Wegener, a Danish man who is believed to be one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery in the 1930s. The movie, starring Eddie Redmayne, will be released November 27, 2015, only a few short months after Bruce Jenner’s own well-publicized transition into Caitlyn.

Einar

Einar Wegener, pre-operations

Einar Wegener, a landscape painter living in Copenhagen in the 1920s is known for his small, dark landscapes of the rural Jutland bogs. Somewhat to his surprise, he finds himself mwegenerarried to Greta, a vivid American artist who wears the orange oil of her native California as a perfume. They live together cozily in the top floor apartment of the Widow House adjacent to the Baltic Sea. Einar is content painting “the small rectangles lit by June’s angled light, or dimmed by the dull January sun” but not the incandescent person he becomes through the course of the novel.

Einar Wegener’s transformation begins so naively; Einar’s wife Greta has a portrait to finish but her subject, an opera diva at the Royal Danish Opera, hasn’t sufficient time to pose. Greta needs her husband’ help.

“It’s just that Anna has canceled again. So would you mind trying on her stockings?” Greta asked. “And her shoes?”

The April sun was behind Greta, filtering through the silk hanging limply in her hand. Through the window, Einar could see the tower of the Rundetarn, like an enormous brick chimney, and above it the Deutsche Aero-Lloyd puttering out on its daily return to Berlin.

“Greta?” Einar said. “What do you mean?” An oily bead of paint dropped from his brush to his book. Edvard IV began to bark, his white head turning from Einar to Greta and back.

“Anna’s canceled again,” Greta said. “She has an extra rehearsal of Carmen. I need a pair of legs to finish her portrait, or I’ll never get it done. And then I thought to myself, yours might do.”

Portrait of Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Portrait of Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Ebershoff’s novel captures the extraordinary story of Einar’s transformation into Lili Elbe, beginning with Einar’s secret glee serving as a model for his wife’s painting, to his adoption of his wife’s clothes outside her presence, to falling in love with a man and ultimately living as a woman with a longing to be one.  Einar’s story is not the only fascinating one here; Greta herself undergoes an equally compelling metamorphosis in the novel, transforming her rather pedestrian art into joyous explosions of color.  In real life, Gerda Wegener became a painter of beautiful, but fairly graphic, sexualized paintings.  https://www.pinterest.com/search/pins/?q=Gerda%20Wegener.

In The Danish Girl though, it is Lili’s journey that consumes us. Seeking medical opinion after opinion, Greta and Lili are despairing and Lili nearly suicidal when they find a doctor willing to help. He offers to complete a series of devastatingly painful gender reassignment surgery.

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Now, in the middle of the night, Lili didn’t want to disturb Carlisle’s sleep, but she could barely remain silent. The pain was returning, and she was gripping the sash of the blanket, shredding it in fear.  She concentrated on the bulb in the ceiling, biting her lip, but soon the pain had spread through her body, and she was screaming, begging for a morphia injection. She cried for ether. She whimpered for her pills laced with cocaine.

With an echo of the sentiment, Caitlyn Jenner confessed to Vanity Fair that “Pain is kind of, for me, part of the pain for being me.”

eddieThe Danish Girl is fascinating, thoroughly enjoyable and the perfect book for your book club to read now, before Eddie Redmayne’s version hits theaters.

UPDATE: The trailer for the movie has just been released and it looks like a true and beautiful version of the novel.  Here’s the trailer link:  https://youtu.be/d88APYIGkjk

MENU

There are lots of mentions of oranges, pickled fish. Einar (Lili) and Greta go to the South of France as well as Copenhagen, offering lots of options. My menu would be a “humorous” take on male/female foods, though, I think.

Sweet Cucumber & Peppers

7 cups sliced cucumber – don’t peel  just score with a fork and slice

1 cup green pepper sliced       cut slices in half again

1 cup sweet onion sliced      cut in half again

1 tablespoon celery seed

Vinegar Mixture

 2 cups white sugar

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon salt

 Stir well and bring this mixture to boil on stove.   When it comes to rolling boil,  take off burner and let cool,  then put in fridge and let get cold before you pour it over vegetables.   When cold, pour over vegetables and stir well and keep covered in frige.  Can eat right away  but better after couple of hours.     

Raw Oysters

Carrots with Hummus

Peach pie

Gingerbread men and women

MUSIC

I asked writer David Ebershoff what music he would recommend pairing with The Danish Girl for a book club night and he said he listened to Strauss’ Four Last Songs quite a bit while writing the novel. He also suggested Mozart’s “trouser” roles, those operas in which women sing the male character’s roles.  Le Nozze di Figaro, La Clemencia de Tito to name two.  See more information here:  http://www.operasj.org/tag/trouser-roles/

MOVIE

No need to cast this one.  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0810819/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm.

The Danish Girl opens in limited theatrical release on November 27, 2015 and opens nationwide this week. It has already been nominated for, and won, a number of prestigious awards, including: Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominates for Alicia Vikander, best supporting actress, Eddie Redmayne, Best Actor.

Happy Reading, Eating & Movie-Watching!