Sounds Familiar

The Bible tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. And, at least in terms of book and movie plots, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the similarities between stories and themes that appear time and time again. Sometimes though it’s not just themes that are revisited but occasionally you might have the realization that perhaps with some tweaks that you’ve actually heard this story before. That happened a couple of times to me in recent reads.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski is a book that had been hovering around in my “to-read” list since its publication in 2008, but had never quite made the push to the top. When we went to Cambria in January, I downloaded it. The story follows a mute youth (the title character), the son of a man that raises remarkable dogs in rural Wisconsin in the mid-20th century. When he’s a teen, Edgar’s father (also named Edgar) dies of what seems to be a sudden stroke, after which the father’s estranged and rivalrous brother Claude comes to stay and “help” his mother Trudy with the farm and dog-raising.

It’s about that time that my brain went, “Hey… wait a minute…father and son named the same thing, a traitorous and usurping uncle Claude scamming the widow Trudy…– crap, this is Hamlet!”

EdgarSawtelleAnd indeed The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a retelling (I suppose Hollywood would call it “a re-imagining”) of Hamlet, but to label it as such is probably a disservice. Young Edgar’s story encompasses his coming-of-age, his nearly magical relationship with his dog Almondine (who is probably my favorite character in the whole story), his frustrations of being unable to understand his father’s death, and his inability to understand his mother’s “betrayal” when she cottons to the traitorous Claude. As in Hamlet, the prince must go away and then formulate his return and revenge. The story isn’t a perfect parallel for Shakespeare’s play, but let’s just say there’s a substantial body count here, too, by the end.

This is a wonderful book. Wroblewski’s plain but powerful writing easily transports the reader to a bucolic time that probably never existed and clearly conjures the characters, especially Edgar, Almondine and Claude. It blends the raw emotion of family drama, the disorienting emotions of growing up, and the almost supernatural bond between a boy and his dog into an incredibly satisfying story.

Four stars out of five.

As a scientist, I usually bristle at the way we are portrayed in literature and on the screen. Too often we’re seen as single-minded and antisocial. Incapable of subtlety. So, I was surprised to see the protagonist of the novel State of Wonder by Ann Patchett be a 40-something scientist, working as a pharmacologist for a pharmaceutical company, who investigates the death of a colleague who had been sent to South America to check the status of a research expedition in reproductive biology. Hey, wait a minute — I thought — I’m a 40-something scientist that’s a pharmacologist who has worked in reproductive biology for most of the last decade. Sweet.

In the novel, Marina Singh is sent from Minnesota by her CEO (and on-the-sly lover) to investigate the death of her friend and colleague Anders Eckmann and to ascertain the status of a reproductive biology research project led by a brilliant but reclusive scientist Annik Swenson, a fearsome woman that was once med school Marina’s mentor. To reach Swenson’s compound among an isolated Amazonian tribe, she must make the disorienting trip from the suburban Midwest to urban Brazil and then travel days upriver into unknown and dangerous territory. It doesn’t take a genius (medical, pharmaceutical, or otherwise) to know we were entering Heart of Darkness re-imagining territory here.

State of WonderState of Wonder is not, in the end, about Marina’s physical journey, though Patchett makes the jungle, with its insects, reptiles, and plants palpably menacing. The novel really hinges more how the characters approach the moral/ethical dilemmas presented in the story: how can we use (but not abuse) the natural world for our own good? Is there anyway to interact with indigenous people without destroying their cultures? What is an acceptable cost (in dollars and lives) of “progress”? And as scientists, are there places that we shouldn’t go — are there discoveries that shouldn’t be described to the public– maybe for its own good?

Overall though, it is the tension of the Marina-Swenson “Marlow-Kurtz” relationship that powers this story, as Marina must learn to confront the spectre of her own early failures and Swenson’s iron sense or righteousness. Ultimately Marina is forced into choices: about her life and those of others — sometimes heartbreaking choices — in a surprisingly tense and unexpected climax for a book that is often cerebral.

Four stars out of five

What about you? Have you read any books recently that are derivations or adaptations of others? Do you think this “re-imagining” is a good idea? Before reading these books, I might have said such books would be too “gimmicky”, but I really enjoyed both of these and has me reconsidering my earlier assumptions.

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29 thoughts on “Sounds Familiar

  1. I have had Edgar Sawtelle in my To Be Read pile for months and months. I started it twice and somehow got distracted. Not a good sign for me. Usually, if a book doesn’t draw me in pretty solidly in the first chapter, I might not ever get back to it. But you have made me really curious about it once again. As soon as I finish the books I have lined up for reviews, I’m going to try it again. It’s been like Water For Elephants, another book I think would be really good, but somehow, I just can’t get myself in the right frame of mind for. I think because I’m expecting that one to be painful. Thanks for the review on Sawtelle. Definitely going to get to it soon, now. I’m checking out State of Wonder, too.
    Nice reviews, Steve!
    (PS…I’m sick of underlining book titles as instructed in Elements of Style. I like how YOURS look in Italics. I’m going to switch!! Another inspiration from Penny’s dad!)

    • I highly recommend them both and really enjoyed both of them, though I tend to stick with books even if they’re slow at the start. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo definitely fell into the “slow start, but glad I stuck with it”.

      I like the italics for titles. I’m not sure where I saw it used. I just try to be consistent… :)

      • My personal feeling is that underlining titles works well in print, but loses something in blog format. It just doesn’t stand out like I want it to, but I didn’t want to go to quotation marks either. I think the Italics looks great, and shows up much better in posts. I’m glad I noticed it yesterday. I’m probably not going to go back and change all of my nearly 250 posts, but I will starting being consistent today! I have been vacillating back and forth over Dragon Tattoo for some time now. Not sure if it’s my thing or not, but I will put another check by it, with SB Liked It noted there. :D

      • I think I got worried about Water For Elephants when my mother read it and said it was the most depressing book she’d ever read in her life. Eeep. But I really WANT to read it…I think.
        :D

  2. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around ‘nothing new’ coming from the Bible when I thought it was a Shakespearian reference. Color me red.

    • There’s a chance Shakespeare was one of the guys who helped write the KJV, so you might both be right.

      I was thinking more along the lines of … was it Aristotle? who said there’s only 3 basic plots anyway.

    • MT — I also thought it was Shakespeare, and was surprised that it was Ecclesiastes 1:9 What has been will be again,
      what has been done will be done again;
      there is nothing new under the sun.

      Learn something new every day! :)

  3. Sigh – I still want to cry whenever I think of Almondine even after all these years and not in a sad way – such a beautiful little soul she was – one of my favourite book characters ever. I always think of this book as a love story between Edgar and Almondine.

  4. I am pretty sure I just found Sawtelle among the batch of books I picked up at the liberry sale in the fall, much to my surprise. I got so many I forgot what I got! :-P I have so many other books and I never know what to read but as soon as I finish the one I’m reading, next up is The Bullpen Gospels to get me ready for baseball season. :) But I may move Edgar up into the “soon” pile. A dog your favorite character? Color me shocked. not! :D

    • cranky — I know. There’s a LOT of dog-breeding and dog-training details in there that might distract some people, but I love the way that they were integrated into the story.

  5. State of Wonder sounds interesting enough that I might overcome my dislike of Ann Patchett and actually pick it up. (Bel Canto, yeeeech.) But if Edgar Sawtelle ends the way I suspect it’ll end, maybe not. Hamlet has a considerable body count at the end, and Horatio is the only good guy standing. (Is Fortinbras a good guy? He arrives too late to save anyone, and ostensibly he seizes the throne of Denmark. And now I’d better stop before I launch into a grad-school seminar paper on the topic.)

    I’m also wondering if Almondine is Ophelia or Horatio. I guess I’ll have to read the novel to find out.

    The only retelling of a classic story that comes to mind right now is Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which follows the trajectory of Shakespeare’s King Lear. I liked it, though it’s a melancholy read IMO. Kurosawa, who was a fan of The Bard, made two movies based on his plays, “Ran,” which is based on Lear, and “Throne of Blood,” which is based on MacBeth. Japanese film gossip claims that Kurosawa was a bit like King Lear himself, except that the studios tossed him out onto the heath, not two wicked daughters.

    • HG — this was the first Patchett that I’ve read, so I don’t have any comparisons. I always thought Fortinbras was the “clean slate” that the kingdom needs to move on past this tragedy — and there was a sort of Fortinbras character I thought. I also tried to place a Horatio/Ophelia connection, but not sure that I could. Whether that’s because Wrobeleski didn’t take the alignment that far, or because of my incomplete Hamlet proficiency, I can’t tell you.

      I forgot about the Kurosawa movies. I may have to find them — I’m guessing sometime when The Beloved isn’t around… ;)

  6. I’m reading a YA-Paranormal series, and I can’t help but see rampant Harry Potterisms. The thing is, I don’t think it’s flagrant or plagiaristic, just that there are only so many things you can do within that genre. Add to Potter the Twilight series, and it’s hard for any subsequent book to feel truly original. That said, Claude and Trudy? lol At least you know the author was aware he was rebooting “Hamlet,” which would let me take the story as an homage. Those two sound good.

    I adored Christopher Moore’s “Fool,” which told the entire King Lear story from The Fool’s point-of-view.. It was a good deal raunchier than I remember from my “Shakespeare’s Later Plays” class. A whole hell of a lot funnier, too.

    • I had the best time reading “Fool”, Tom. I need to go reread it! What an absolute hoot! And the only way I can take Shakespeare. I know, I’m a weenie.

    • Tom — yes, it was very clearly an homage and very deliberate. I don’t think you can wink-and-nod at Hamlet quite like that.

      The YA stuff is an interesting comparison, because I see a lot of titles and covers go by and I think “these are all the same book”.

      A couple of people have recommended “Fool” and Christopher Moore to me. More to pile on the to-read list.

  7. Oh, Big Slap on the Forehead! I read Edgar Sawtelle a couple of years ago and felt that tickle of familiarity, but I was so engrossed in the dogs and Almondine that I didn’t bother. Thank you for scratching that itch for me!

  8. Both sound great Steve. Too many science characters are sad, dull stereotypes. I’ll have to check that book out. Did I mention I was reading The Great Night, which is a Midsummer Night’s Dream reimagining? If an author is THAT good, that brilliant, I think they should do it. But it’s rare.

    • amelie — I guess we’re particularly sensitive to scientist stereotyping, so it’s good to see some actual characters presented rather than caricatures. I will definitely check out The Great Night. Thanks for the tip!

  9. These are two of my favourite books although not everyone in my book club enjoyed Edgar Sawtelle as much as I did. State of Wonder was more of a hit and there was some excellent discussion around the moral dilemmas faced by the characters in this novel. None of us, however, made any connections to other literature. I think I’ll bring it up at our next meeting.

    • mamacormier — that’s interesting. I would have guessed that Sawtelle would connect with more people than State of Wonder, but there you go. It’d be interesting to see if the analogies alter anyone’s perceptions of the books.

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