The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

I've learned to avoid reading the back cover and inside jacket before I've finished the book because they often give away too much of the story. Sure enough, the back cover of this book has a blurb containing a spoiler, but avoiding it didn't help me since it only took me a few chapters to recognise the classic that this story is based on. Knowing what was going to happen made me put down the book often, in spite of the excellent writing. I just didn't feel that I had the emotional stamina to take the tragedies that I knew were coming.

At one point, having been away from it for several weeks, I thought I could safely label it a did-not-finish. It looked innocent enough lying there on my bedside table, though, and eventually the beautiful prose lured me back into the story and I did finally finish it.

Edgar is the much-wanted son of Gar and Trudy, who breed and train dogs, carrying on the work of Gar's father. The dogs have come to be known simply as Sawtelle dogs and are carefully placed with people who will respect and continue the training instilled by the Sawtelles. Edgar is born deaf but learns to sign with his parents, often with signs he's adapted or made up. His companion is Almondine, a Sawtelle dog who sleeps, plays and eats with Edgar, teaching him as she teaches the puppies how to behave. As he gets older, Edgar's job is to name the new puppies, a job he takes very seriously, perusing the dictionary and matching the name to the personality. Then he begins to help with the training.

It is the training portions that fascinated me, the descriptions of the tasks they put the dogs through, and of the bond that develops between human and canine. Gar's father had an extensive correspondence with another expert who did not believe that dogs could be bred for qualities of character rather than color of coat or shape of ear yet the Sawtelle methods have clearly been successful. Gar carries on his father's meticulous breeding records.

Wroblewski's prose is arrestingly lovely even in its plainness. He says of Edgar's mother: “Working with the dogs, Trudy was at her most charismatic and imperious. Edgar had seen her cross the mow at a dead run, grab the collar of a dog who refused to down, and bring it to the floor, all in a single balletic arc. Even the dog had been impressed: it capered and spun and licked her face as though she had performed a miracle on its behalf.”

He also captures Edgar's mindset at each age, from early childhood into his teens, affected by his isolated life on the farm in northern Wisconsin. Describing the day Edgar and his father discover a stray, Wroblewski says that Edgar stops “near the narrow grove of trees that projected into the south field atop the hill. A granite ledge swelled from the ground there, gray and narrow and barnacled with moss, cresting among the trees and submerging near the road like the hump of a whale breaking the surface of the earth. As his father walked along, Edgar stepped into the wild mustard and Johnson grass and waited to see if the ground might ripple and seal over as the thing passed. Instead, a shadow floated into view at the ledge's far end. Then the shadow became a dog, nose lowered to the mossy back of the leviathan as though scenting an old trail. When the dog reached the crest of the rock, it looked up, forepaw alert, and froze.”

There is much in this book about domestication and the wild, compromise and danger. I'm glad I read on. By the time I reached the end, I was ready for it. And I would not for anything have missed the man Edgar meets on his travels.

Full Dark House, by Christopher Fowler

A particularly challenging aspect of the writing craft is to braid a storyline set in the present with one set in the past. Full Dark House starts in the present day when recently retired detective Gladys Forthright is awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call saying that a bomb has destroyed her former station house. She rushes to the scene where she is met by her long-term colleague John May. Knowing that his partner Arthur Bryant planned to work there all night, May fears the worst.

Certain clues indicate that the explosion is related to the very first case that May worked on with Bryant, when May first joined the Peculiar Crimes Unit—peculiar meaning “special” but given Bryant's interest in the paranormal it quickly came to mean something entirely different. That first day Bryant and May began investigating the gruesome murder of a dancer during World War II. The dancer was preparing to perform in a new production of Orpheus at the Palace Theatre, which was meant to raise the morale of Londoners buffeted by wartime shortages and the constant threat of German bombing raids.

The easiest approach to combining past and present is to have the present-day story as a frame: only at the beginning and the end of the book. Brideshead Revisited is an excellent example. Another approach is to introduce each chapter with a bit of the present-day story and then move back into the past, as Jane Urquhart did so well in Away. A third way is to alternate chapters, which Fowler does here effectively.

The main thing is to be sure the reader knows what time period she is in, so having a consistent format, such as the three above, helps by telling the reader what to expect. Recently I heard of a work-in-progress, a novel, set entirely in today except for one flashback scene near the middle. While I believe a talented writer can make anything work, I suspect that scene will leave readers disoriented.

Another way to help readers figure out where they are, as I learned from my friend Pat, is to provide clues in the text that signal one time frame or another. Fowler does that as well. In the present, May complains about his elderly aches and pains, while in the past he's sprightly enough at nineteen to jump on a motorcycle and endure a grueling pursuit. Also, Bryant's presence is a clear marker that we are in the past. The time periods, too, are quite different: the present prompts May's complaints about traffic and ugly architecture, while the past conjures up the blackouts and sirens of the Blitz. Also, some characters only exist in one timeframe or the other.

In addition to managing the time shifts so that I was never unsure of what time period we were in, Fowler crafts a satisfying puzzle, both in the past and the present. Bryant and May make an interesting team. May knows how to attract the ladies while Bryant hopelessly fumbles every encounter. Bryant's partiality to paranormal explanations is lost on May with his resolute practicality. When the Palace appears to be haunted by a phantom, the two come up with dramatically different explanations. If I anticipated some aspects of the ending, others took me by surprise. This is the first in a series of books about Bryant and May, and it is well done indeed.

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

In writing last week about Octavian Nothing I mentioned my nostalgia for the time when I equated the U.S. with liberty and believed this country stood as a shining model of freedom for the world to emulate. That book explores the hypocrisy of the founding fathers demanding freedom for themselves while owning slaves. Lest we think such abuses happen only in the distant past, Dave Eggers comes along with this nonfiction book to remind us that they are all too current.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun (pronounced ZAY-toon) and his wife Kathy run a flourishing, if demanding, contracting business in New Orleans. Anyone who has owned a home knows that a contractor who shows up when he says he will and does good work is more valuable than gold. Zeitoun's customers trust him. When he works on one house, soon he has crews working on other houses on the street.

Born in Syria, Zeitoun becomes an American, proud to contribute to his community. Kathy grew up in Baton Rouge and converted to Islam before she met Zeitoun. The two are a responsible, hard-working couple with two daughters, well-known and respected in their community.

Then comes Hurricane Katrina. Zeitoun persuades Kathy to leave with the children, but stays behind himself to watch over their properties. Also, many current and former customers have entrusted him with their keys to keep an eye on their properties too. In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans fills up with guns and law enforcement personnel, the few professionals supplemented by contractors from companies like Blackwater. One of their first actions is to construct an emergency prison similar to the one in Guantanamo Bay.

Eggers tells the story of the Zeitouns in straight-forward prose, engrossing and alarming in its simplicity. Such a story—unbelievable to someone who hasn't seen her middle-eastern friend repeatedly told with a straight face that the men's room is out of order—needs no embellishment. Its very plainness is its strength. The lack of adjectives and adverbs, of metaphors and complex phrases, reflects the baffled shock of the Zeitouns at their treatment. Faced with such abuse, abuse that goes against everything you think you know about a country, your mind stutters to a halt. You go back to the basics, aware only of your immediate experience, absent the comforting context your mind normally wraps around events.

While the book is shocking, the closeness of the bond between Zeitoun and Kathy and with their friends and family reassures me that hope remains. Social psychologists have long known that people will pull together when faced with a common enemy. Positive use may be made of this principle, such as by Churchill during the Blitz. But more commonly, bullies and oligarchs use it to muster followers, whether it is Hitler blaming the Jews for Germany's problems, or right-wing politicians demonising poor people or unions.

I hate to see Muslims, the vast majority of whom I'm sure are peace-loving, hard-working members of their communities, tarred with the brush of a small number of terrorists. Eggers offers an alternative narrative. I hope many people in the U.S. read this book.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party, by M. T. Anderson

There's a song that Alistair Brown sings that always moves me. In Jamestown the ship's crew sing of “the wild delight of a sailor homeward bound” after being at sea for three years. They urge each other on, anticipating their welcome. But the line that makes me catch my breath is when they arrive and friends and family crowd around saying, “Welcome, Columbia's mariners, to your home and liberty.”

We're talking about a time long ago when the country was young and wooden ships sailed the oceans, so the equating of the United States with liberty has the naive freshness of the days when the country stood as a beacon of freedom. However, the simple pride I felt in my country as a child has long been undercut by the realisation that those same founding fathers who bewailed the tyranny of England were themselves slave owners. Liberty, of course, was only for white men.

This Young Adult book was first recommended to me by Lesley, a children's librarian. Since then, others have mentioned how good it is. I found it a little hard to get into, since the language is archaic and the opening situation unclear. For many chapters, I was uncertain of the time period, and whether I was reading a fantasy novel or a depiction of the real world. Even knowing as much as I do of the eighteenth century craze for natural science and the odd enclaves of amateur enthusiasts, I was confused. The explanation was a long time coming and only the short chapters and faith in Lesley's judgment kept me reading.

Set in Boston in the 1760s, Octavian lives with his mother in a house dedicated to the pursuit of science. The amateur philosopher-scientists of the Novanglian College, led by Mr. Gitney, pursue many odd experiments and also tutor Octavian who is treated like a little prince. After all, his mother was a princess in Africa. Dressed in silks and satins and petted by all, he is given a classical education and music lessons. It is some time before he realises that other little boys, whether prince or urchin, do not have to measure and weigh their excrement to compare intake and output. Eventually he becomes aware that he and his mother are themselves are not only slaves, but also the subjects of experiments to prove the inferiority of the African race.

Anderson says in the endnote that he wanted to write about this seminal period in history from the point of view of someone who doesn't know how it will turn out. I find that idea fascinating. Caught up in a moment of cultural change, as I remember quite well from 1968, you can sense possibilities opening up that you never dreamed of, even as you fear that what you're experiencing is just a momentary blip. How much more interesting, then, to look at this historic moment from the point of view of an outsider.

I'm surprised that the book is considered appropriate for teens and impressed that it is so popular. The language, which is similar to that of other eighteenth century novels, is difficult and unwelcoming. The vivid descriptions of abuses visited upon slaves cannot but horrify the reader. I knew that YA books had become much darker and more graphic that those of my day, but this is the stuff of nightmares. However, then I recalled that when I was eleven, I came across a book that consisted of news stories about lynchings, just one reprint after another. It was a thick book. Yes, I was horrified. Nightmares ensued. Yet with the devotion to fairness that the young possess, I became a foot soldier in the cause. It was very much due to this formative moment that I later broke with my parents over the civil rights movement.

If it takes this book a while to get going, it does eventually become absorbing, especially as the narrator grows older and understands better what is happening around him. It is a shocking book, but one that is ultimately satisfying. I will look for the next in the series and think of Octavian when I listen the sailors of the Jamestown extolling home and liberty.