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!
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C’est Magnifique: The Suitors by Cecile David-Weill

Seaside Resort in the South of France 1927 by Paul Klee 1879-1940

“Seaside Resort in the South of France,” by Paul Klee

In Cecile David-Weill’s delightful romp through the South of France, two sisters attempt to save the family’s summer home, a seaside villa near Cap d’Antibes, from their father’s intended sale by romancing wealthy men.  The plan is to seduce some unsuspecting rich guy, get him to either buy the place or cause enough fear in Dear Old Dad to make him rethink his position.  Along the way, the girls relive some favorite childhood memories, reencounter old loves, reacquaint with one another and find out their mom uses cocaine to remain svelte.  Ah, sisters.

maas 129 “Two Sisters,” Jean Claude Richard

The Suitors‘ action occurs over three weekends in the family’s final summer at their bonne maison.  Laure and Marie take turns inviting prey, ahem, I mean potential suitors.  Oprah’s magazine called the novel “Downtown Abbey” set in France during our current century.  http://www.oprah.com/book/The-Suitors?editors_pick_id=40551.  The Wall Street Journal review compared it to Nancy Mitford’s work.  http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324678604578342244051488344.

I think it has some elements of Jane Austen myself.  Societal chasms, money issues, mother-daughter tete-a-tetes in the bathroom of the luxurious estate.

L’Agapanthe has nothing flashy about it.  No balustrade or row of columns overlooking the sea.  It is a Mediterranean villa, built around a loggia like a monastery around its cloister, the complete opposite of a house with a view.  As if the sea had decided to behave like an experienced courtesan and simply suggest its presence, with bright touches shimmering through the shad of lush plants and undergrowth, instead of flaunting itself under the windows of L’Agapanthe like a trollop.

Of the many divine things about The Suitors, I particularly enjoyed the meticulous detailing of the daily life which guides the servants.  David-Weill includes menus for each lunch and dinner, the room assignments of each weekends guests on the Secretary’s Name Board, the chauffeur pick-up schedules, the staff lunch notebook and even the cupboard inventory. I also enjoyed the weary wisdom of narrator Laure, a recently divorced, single mom.

I agreed with all my single friends who had looked around without finding anyone seriously desirable, and I had taken up their mantra:  “where are all the men?”  As far as I was concerned, the answer was “Wyoming!” – and only half in jest, because on a trip there I’d seen lots of men who seemed completely well-adjusted, perfectly happy with their horses, their cowboy duds.  . . .

I used to say that I loved men but not unconditionally.  I wanted them to be, in descending order of importance:  nice, intelligent, ready to be happy, forgiving of themselves and others, generous, and wise.  They had to have no fear of women, be virile, fond of making love but at eh same time past the frolicking-with-bimbos stage.  I’m demanding, I know.  Especially since they had to be successful in their careers; otherwise they were bitter or limited in their outlook on life.

Good luck with that, girlfriend.

the suitors

David-Weill knows whereof she writes:  her father was chairman of the merchant bank Lazard Frères, and the family spent their holidays at Cap d’Antibes.  I discovered that salient fact after reading The Suitors and wish I had known there was a potential roman a clef element to the novel.

I’m hosting book club next week and I hope the other members of my group enjoyed The Suitors as much as I did.

MENU

David-Weill includes two recipes in the back of the book.  I will be using her recipe for Coeur a la Creme.  But since it’s December and hovering around 40 degrees, I will not be serving the warm weather food that makes up most of the menus in the book.

Cheese Sticks — made with puff pastry (much easier than gougeres)

Haricots Vertes

Chicken with Cremini and Chestnuts (adapted from The Barefoot Contessa’s Barefoot in Paris)

1 cup mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thinly

1 cup of roasted, peeled chestnuts (I used Trader Joe’s package of peeled chestnuts, the whole thing)

6 chicken breasts

Shallots

Minced garlic (3 cloves)

1 cup red wine

1 cup creme fraiche

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Butter, salt, pepper, flour

Preheat oven to 375. Salt and pepper the chicken, then dredge it in flour.  Heat 2 tbsp butter in large sauté pan and cook the chicken over medium-low heat until browned on both sides.  Then place in a dutch oven or large casserole dish.

Add 2 tablespoons melted butter, to the pan with shallots, mushrooms, chestnuts and garlic and sauté over medium heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add the mix into the pan and reduce the liquid by half over high heat.  Add the creme fraiche, cream, lemon juice, 1 teaspoon salt and 3/4 teaspoon pepper.  Pour the sauce over the chicken and bake for 15 minutes until the chicken is heated through.

Potato Gratin

Coeur a la Creme

MUSIC

I’m very excited about the music.  I found a C.D. of 20 songs for $9.99 on iTunes — A Christmas Eve in Paris!

Happy Reading!

Necessity, Invention and Wings: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

grimke

 According to the National Women’s History Museum, “Sarah Moore Grimke and Angelina Emily Grimké (shown above) were the only white people of either gender who were born in the upper-class South, but rejected that luxurious lifestyle to fight against slavery. They also were among the very first to see the close connection between abolitionism and women’s rights.”  http://www.nwhm.org.  The sisters were chased out of their home of Charleston, S.C. under threat of death and moved to Philadelphia.  From there, Angelina joined the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and wrote letters to newspapers protesting slavery from a woman’s point of view. This attracted the attention of abolitionists, who enlisted the Grimkes in the cause because they knew the cruelties of slavery firsthand.  When the sisters began making public anti-slavery speeches, even the Quakers grew disturbed and tried to stop them.  Despite the fierce opposition, north and south, the Grimke sisters became authors, public speakers, and activists at a time when women were not allowed to vote.

  Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Secret Life of Bees, became fascinated by the Grimke sisters and made them the foundation upon which to build her novel The Invention of Wings.  She related the following to Oprah: “In 2007, I went to see Judy Chicago’s exhibition The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum. There was a wall of women—a list of 999 who had made significant contributions to history, and lo and behold there were these two sisters from Charleston, the Grimkés. I was living in Charleston then, and I’d never heard of them, but after reading about them at the exhibit, I thought, “They should be as well known as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.”  http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Oprah-Talks-with-Sue-Monk-Kidd-About-The-Invention-of-Wings.

78755964      sue-monk-kidd-c-roland-scarpa_custom-9c154f9c7ed664dbb9ffdcbf33e64329c0a9da2e-s6-c30       harriet-powers-quilt-copy

   In Kidd’s novel, Sarah’s “present” for her 11th birthday is a human slave.  Hetty, a child of her own age, is given to Sarah.  Apparently this much is historical fact.  In Kidd’s novel, Sarah attempts to reject the gift, revolted at the thought of being owner of another human being and is punished by her family for her rebellion.  From that point, Kidd traces the relationship between Sarah and Hetty, during which the girls love one another and play together as Sarah teaches Hetty to read.  Eventually, Hetty comes to understand the reality of the situation and the resentment on her part grows as does Sarah’s frustration with her own inability to change things.

 Hetty and her mother Charlotte work as house servants for Sarah’s family, but Charlotte’s talent as a dressmaker is so great that her services are in demand from many others in town; so much so that Charlotte has hopes of buying her own and Hetty’s freedom.  In her very rare and secret personal time, Charlotte works on a quilt to tell future generations the story of her life.  According to a review in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the quilts are based on those made by a Harriett Powers, born a slave in Georgia, one of which is pictured above.

  Although there are elements of The Invention of Wings that reminded me of other books I’ve read recently, The Help, The Known World, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Kidd does have a unique and historical tale to tell and she does it elegantly.  The Invention of Wings shifts chapters between first person narrators Hetty and Sarah and though each tell of Charlotte’s life, it may be that Charlotte has the best story to tell but we don’t hear from her personally.

  Kidd makes a point in interviews of noting this book is about city slaves/urban slaves.  The urban slavery is as treacherous and dangerous despite its location, which is vastly different from the Tara and Twelve Oaks settings often associated with slavery.  Most of The Invention of Wings occurs in Charleston, where “the slaves dominated the streets, doing their owners’ bidding, shopping the market, delivering messages and invitations for teas and dinner parties. Some were hired out and trekked back and forth to work… You could see them gathered at street corners, wharves and grog shops.”

  I can recommend The Invention of Wings as a choice for book clubs without hesitation.  The prose is well-done, the issues are interesting for discussion and it’s Charleston, S.C., so there’s good food to be had.

MENU

Dragoon Punch:  plays a big role in Sarah’s love affair

  • 4 cups raw sugar
  • 3 cups fresh lemon juice from about 24 lemons
  • 4 quarts black tea
  • 4 quarts brandy 
  • 1 quart rum 
  • 1/2 pint peach brandy 
  • Peels of 6 lemons, cut into slivers
  • 1 1/2 quarts soda water
  1. Combine sugar, lemon juice, tea, brandy, rum, peach brandy, and lemon peels in a large bowl. Stir until sugar is dissolved and chill in refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
  2. Add ice (preferably in one large block) and top with soda water before serving. Alternatively, top each glass with 1 ounce of soda water before serving.

Punch_bowl

   According to Kidd, breakfast was the largest meal of the day and she describes a breakfast with sausage, grit cakes, salted shrimp, brown bread and tapioca jelly.  I searched through my grandmother’s recipes and found one titled “Aunt Jessie’s Sausage.”  This would be my great-great aunt and I imagine my grandmother recorded this recipe somewhere around 1930.  I’ve copied it exactly, so from there, I’m not sure what you do.

Aunt Jessie’s Sausage

10 pounds meat                                   2 tablespoons sage

1 teaspoon red pepper                        2 tablespoon salt (not heaping)

1 tablespoon black pepper

Breakfast Shrimp Recipe from Saveur.com

Seining for small sweet creek shrimp is a favorite Lowcountry pastime, and happily results in this meal from Ben Moise’s The South Carolina Wildlife Cookbook (South Carolina Wild Life, 1981). Serve it with crisp bacon and a pot of steaming coffee.

2 lbs. small creek shrimp
1 small onion, finely chopped
1⁄4 tsp. ground black pepper
3 tbsp. bacon fat
3 tbsp. flour
Hominy

1. Boil shrimp in 3 cups of water for 5 minutes. Cool shrimp, reserving liquid.

2. Cook onions and pepper in bacon fat. Add flour and stir until mixture begins to turn brown.

3. Pour in the shrimp liquid, and cook 2–3 minutes, stirring vigorously. Add shrimp, lower heat, simmer 4 minutes, and serve over hominy.

  Hetty’s Christmas plans include sorghum and corn fritters and nothing beats a little sorghum and butter on a corn or grit cake.

MUSIC

  I’ve mentioned before the wonderful recordings of the American Spiritual Ensemble and that would be a fine background for your book club.  I also found a recording of American Abolitionist music on amazon called Songs of the Abolitionists.

MOVIE CASTING

OK:  Now, let’s just be candid and say that the visual representations of the Grimke sisters do not show particularly, shall we say, movie star looks.  So ignoring their actual appearance, I certainly can see Helen Hunt and Toni Collette bringing the necessary chops and gravitas to the roles.  As for Hetty and Charlotte, Lupita Nyong’o will be offered everything from here to next Thursday, but she would be fabulous as Hetty.  And of course the same goes for Viola Davis.  But wouldn’t it be great to see them play mother and daughter?

Happy reading.