Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Minutes ago I finished David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. When I read the last page of a truly great book, I close the cover and then hold it in my arms for a few moments. I trace my hand over the book jacket and down the spine, let myself feel the weight of it, as if the physical presence of the book will prevent it from really being over. It's a reflexive movement, born out of a desire to hold onto the discovery and marvel and utter newness of a first time read, to squeeze out every last ounce of that experience, because no matter how many times you re-read a book (and I re-read books a lot), it will never be quite the same.

If it's a really great book I hold onto it for ever longer. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a really great book. Now I know I'm a little late on the bandwagon. It came out a while ago and it's an Oprah pick after all, which means about a million people have had time to read it by now. But I was busy re-reading the Harry Potter series for a couple of months (I started this latest re-read when I moved away from Charleston, I credit it for keeping me at least relatively stable). But I finally bought this book, and it only took me about thirty pages in to know that it was special. Thirty pages in is when a chapter titled "Almondine" starts. A mute teenager named Edgar Sawtelle is unequivocally the novel's protagonist, but the POV leaves him and switches to other characters several times throughout the novel. The "Almondine" chapter is told from the point of view of one of the Sawtelle family dogs. The Sawtelles own and operate a kennel in rural Wisconsin, so their world is heavily populated by dogs, but Almondine is their dog, the only one who lives in the house and who will never be sold. She grows up with Edgar and she is his. Although that's not entirely true. Again and again we learn that he is hers, her boy. Now a chapter told from a dog's point of view would normally raise alarm bells with me. I would think cutesy or cloying or unrealistic. But the chapters seen through Almondine's eyes are some of the richest in this incredibly layered novel. Wroblewski writes about dogs with tremendous lyricism and love and grace. And he doesn't write down to them. They're not dumb or silly or laughable. They're rendered with enormous respect and understanding. But he also doesn't treat them like humans and Almondine's chapters are not in the voice of a human. But somehow and I don't know how he does it, Wroblewski articulates her thoughts and feelings in a way where you read it and you just go, of course. Like you've known all your life that's how a dog would sound, only you didn't know how to get there on your own. I read the "Almondine" chapter and I knew I was in masterful hands. I was in for a story that was beautifully written, but more importantly I was in for a beautiful, engaging, complex, entertaining story, a book bursting with that hard to define, for lack of a better word, "storyness" that so many authors, even with their elegant words and sentences, fail to create.

But David Wroblewski, even though it's his first novel, knows how to tell a damn good story. "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" is really hard to put into a category. It's a ghost story, a tragedy, a coming of age tale, a love letter to dogs, a revenge sage, a survival drama, a distinctly American narrative. It's about the struggle to put into words all of the messy and conflicting things that we, us stubborn, confusing creatures called humans, feel. It's about the ultimate failure and futility of so much of our language and so many of our human gestures when it comes to articulating what we mean and think and know. It's about the mysteries that occur all around us and inside of us, but which so many times go unnoticed because they aren't expressed in ways humans can or want to understand. This book is about so many things, so many threads and strands and nuances that appear to be distinct and self contained but which perfectly, wrenchingly come together in the end.

The entirety of this book is well written. The story is told with tremendous confidence and restraint throughout. But there are just some utterly rapturous passages, the kind of writing that removes you from your world. Most writing gets you about half way there. But a piece of you is still in that chair or on that bed, tethered to reality. But great writing takes you completely away. It immerses you in the world of the book. It's the closest thing to time travel there will probably ever be. And Wroblewski is that kind of writer. There's this scene in the rain about a third of the way through. I won't go into too much detail because I don't want to give too much away, but it's the absolute heart of the novel. It speaks to the book's central idea that there are truths that go deeper and farther beyond the boundaries and limitations we humans surround ourselves with, if only we let ourselves see them. And it's sort of like the dog chapters. In lesser hands, hell even in a lot of very good hands, this chapter would be ludicrous. It would derail the book and manipulate the reader. But in Wroblewski's hands, it's so, so right. Again you just find yourself saying of course. Of course this would happen. Of course it would happen this way. There could have been no other outcome.

And that's what great writing is. It's always stuck with me, this thing I learned in one of my early fiction classes. I'm sure some famous author said it and I wish I could remember, but that part I don't remember. What I do remember is the idea, which was that a great story should get the reader to a place that is both unexpected and completely inevitable. That's what this book does again and again. And along the way Wroblewski creates these rich, believable characters, from Edgar's mother, a woman both resilient and broken who has known sorrow and who has willed herself to turn turn away from it, to his uncle Claude, who may be one of the greatest literary villains I've come across in some time. He doesn't twirl his mustache and cackle. He's actually likable on several occasions. But Wroblewski reveals a weakness and a darkness in him that are just as terrifying as any weapon. And the dogs. I've talked about them already but I can't say enough about them. I can't do justice to the way Wroblewski reveals them as creatures with inner lives just as fascinating as the humans who train them.

There are so many reasons to rave about this book. I could go on and on and never really describe what is about it that makes it so special. So please find out for yourself. If you're one of those people who purposely avoid an Oprah book club pick because it's too "mainstream", I urge you to consider this one. There are books you read and enjoy and which ultimately fade inside of your mind. But this is the kind of book that stays with you. This is the kind of book you ache for when it's over, where you're actually homesick for the world contained within those 562 pages. And what a world it is, populated by humans and ghosts and beautiful dogs and strange, unnameable things which linger just outside the scope of our language.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

an announcement and a wish

an announcement=

I am going to Thailand in May to teach English to little Thai children. I will be there at least 5 months. It's very exciting, and I waited a solid two months to find out and I would sound more enthusiastic if little Elli Grace hadn't so thoroughly worn me out today (she walks more and more every day, which means I spend more and more time running after her in a stooped over position with an arm on either side to prevent said child from breaking herself and/or breaking assorted household items). So since I'm too tired to convey my enthusiasm, I will just say that when I close my eyes at night I think of a not too distant future that may hold this.

And this. There is almost nothing I want more in life than to ride an elephant. And Thailand may be the best bet I ever have to do just that.

a wish=

When I grow up I want to go live at Cesar Milan's Dog Psychology Center. I want to hang out with the "pack"and maybe become best friends with Cesar. I think he could teach me a lot about life. And I don't think I could ever be sad if I was always surrounded by puppies. That is all.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


First I hear rumblings about a remake of Working Girl, the utter 1980s CLASSIC starring Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford (who by the way, may never have looked hotter-this being the man who played Han Solo and Indiana Jones). This was enough to strike fear directly into my heart, because I love Working Girl, have loved it since I was so young that my mom had to fast forward through the slightly too PG-13 parts. I love Tess and her ginormous hair and white sneakers and her unorthodox yet triumphant rise to the top of the business world. I love Joan Cusack with her equally ginormous hair and super thick Jersey accent. I love the Carly Simon penned song that was written for the movie, "Let the River Run". It is quite possibly my favorite song of all time. To sum up, I love Working Girl, I think it is perfect just the way it is, and think it is utter blasphemy to even suggest remaking it.

Then I hear that they want to remake Footloose. Now the tantalizing idea that Zac Efron would play the lead did intrigue me, along with possibility that it would be a full on musical. But then I remembered how truly perfect Kevin Bacon is in the role of Ren McCormack. I love me some Zac Efron (and yes I admit that without shame), but could he ever pull of an angry gymnastics inspired freestlye dance in an abandoned warehouse? In sweats no less!? I mean really who could besides a young Kevin Bacon. Could Zac Efron capture the intensity of Ren when he makes the speech in front of the town hall, the one about dancing and celebrating and praising that always makes me tear up, despite the fact that I've seen it at least 30 times. The musical idea sounded kind of cool but really it would make me die a little inside if during the intense tractor chicken race, everyone just burst into song and went gallavanting through hay fields. Footloose, like Working Girl, is one of those absolutely perfect movies that could never be improved on.

And today I hear that they are definitely remaking Clue, yes that Clue, the one based on a board game, the one starring Tim Curry and Michael McKean and Christopher Lloyd, the awesomely silly and wonderfully funny film I love so dearly. It's not just rumblings or rumors, it's a fact. And all I have to say to those shady Hollywood types who dare tarnish my beloved Working Girl or Footloose or Clue is how dare you sirs? How dare you?

Why don't you just go ahead and desecrate a few graveyards, kick some puppies in the face, and burn down Disney World (along with Mickey et. all) while you're at it?

Have you no soul? Leave my movies alone!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

random observations from a sunday (and monday)

You know how there are those actors that you will watch no matter what they're in, even if it looks like the worst movie in history, say an all claymation re-make of Pearl Harbor or a musical version of Schindler's List. Well for me one of those actors is Shia Labeouf. I think he's absolutely fabulous. Not only is he stunningly talented, he's transitioned from an awkward teenager to a pretty freaking smokin' grown man. I distinctly remember watching Even Stevens when I was little and thinking that kid's got something. And I know that sounds like one of those hokey things that everyone says after a person has made it big, but I really thought he was a special talent, even back then. And I've followed his career since those Disney Channel days, from Holes (one of my all time favorite movies) to A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (another great film-if you havent' seen it please check it out) to the new Indiana Jones (not such a great film, unfortunately, I mean aliens!? that's sacrilege in the Indiana Jones universe George Lucas, even if you did create it). And this morning I watched his most recent film, Eagle Eye. Now if this movie had starred most anyone else I would never have given it a second look. I'm not so big on techno conspiracy thrillers. But because it was Shia, I bought it OnDemand. And yeah it's kind of a formulaic, silly thing, but I really enjoyed it, again mostly because of Shia. He's one of those actors I would watch read the phone book. I watched Distrubia because of him. And I hate scary movies, like really, really hate them and go out of my way to avoid them. I can't even watch previews for scary movies. But I sat through the whole creepy thing and again, really enjoyed it. So pretty much no matter what direction Shia Labeouf's career goes in, I'm going to follow. I'm just praying he doesn't decide his true passion is film noir or slasher films or ninja movies or something. Because well, I'll probably watch even those if Shia's in them.

My new favorite line of skin care products is Say Yes to Carrots. I actually got a box full of the stuff way back in the summer of 2007 when I interned at V Magazine for Women. The editor said I was welcome to the products because she'd gotten them for free (one of the perks of working for a magazine-free goodies). And I tried a couple of them then, like the elbow and hand cream (turns your skin into absolute silk) and the body butter (turns your skin into something beyond silk-like silk made of butter). But I didn't try the rest of the stuff until today. And because I was in a pampering mood, I used the manicure salt scrub and the hair mask and they're just as amazing as the other products I'd tried. The manicure salt made my hands softer than they've ever been, which is saying something considering they've been really dry lately now that I'm away from the humid Charleston air. They all smell awesome and are made from all natural ingredients like dead sea mud and well, carrots, and tons of other edible ingredients you can I'm sure find out about from the website. But I love the stuff and best of all it's really affordable. You can get it at Target and Walgreens. I may not be a skin care expert and I've definitely not tried half of the fancy stuff at department stores, but I do know what works for my skin (Clinique and Neutrogena can do no wrong). And Say Yes to Carrots definitely works for my skin in awesome, pampering ways.

So I've sort of been on a shopping streak (which is bad considering I'm trying to save all of my money for a possible foray to Thailand), buttt I have found some amazing spring-ish things. Here's a brief sampling.

A pretty yellow scarf from Gap. It's solid and very basic but really sweet. Normally I avoid yellow like the plague (I'm blond and I tend to think it's a bad idea to match anything with one's hair) but I've been obsessed with the idea of having a yellow scarf ever since I saw Slumdog Millionaire.

Now I know I'm no Frieda Pinto and I don't have the gorgeous dark skin and features to really pull off yellow. But even if it may not look the best on me, I couldn't resist the cheerful burst of color that is a yellow scarf.

A pretty necklace from J. Crew. I searched for a picture but couldn't find one. But it's one of those long, layering necklaces that you can pair with a simple tee and suddenly class up a whole outfit. It has a gold chain and little grayish loops and little crystals and it's really fun. Plus it brings my grand total of necklaces up to one. I am not a jewelry person. I like earrings and bracelets, but usually if I put on a necklace I always feel like I'm some kind of imposter or just a little girl playing dress up. I don't know why and I love necklaces on other people, but for whatever reason I have a hard time wearing them. So I'm excited because now I have a necklace I really love and that I'll really feel like myself when wearing.

A new pair of jeans from J. Crew. I adore J. Crew denim, like if I could only buy one pair of jeans for the rest of my life it would be J. Crew jeans. They fit me great. They're super comfy and if bought at the outlet like I did today, they are really, awesomely affordable.

And a few other things that I really love and which make me very happy to now have in my closet. What can I say, I'm a girl, a girl who loves to shop. Plus I'm doing my patriotic duty and investing some money in our poor little, struggling retail economy. Or at least that's what I tell myself to drown out any guilty, nagging feelings that my money would have been better saved than spent.

And last but not least I am very excited right now because tonight I kind of recreated an awesome salad I had at Can Can last weekend. It's pretty simple, but the Can Can menu just calls it a roast chicken salad with cumin and lime aioli. I used lemon instead of lime with mayo, cumin, green onions and a little bit of dill and it tasted very much like what I had at the restaurant. So wohoo! Instead of spending 12 dollars for a restaurant salad I can make the same thing for about 5 dollars worth of ingredients.

And that's about it for my random observations. I'm sure I'll be back with more.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

some things apparently (and comfortingly) never change

So I've been back at home for more than a month now, after four plus years of living on my own in Charleston. And there have been times when I want to scream, pull my hair out, gather all of my worldly possessions (or at least just my laptop and panda) and go live in my car rather than get nagged about leaving laundry in the hall too long or keeping too many dishes in my room. There are times when I desperately miss living in my own apartment, having the simple pleasure of keeping my own house-being the one to shop for all groceries and adjust the thermostat and yes, even clean. But then there are times when I really love living with my parents again-the homecooked meals (thank you mama!), the coffee pot always full when I wake up, the whole not having to pay rent or utilities thing (minor detail I know).

And today when I came home from work I saw something that just completely comforted my soul. My mom is out of town visiting my dad (where he works, they're not divorced, long story). She left a note on the refrigerator listing in detail the ready to eat and frozen foods she had left for me (23 years and several months) and my brother (25 plus) to eat while she's gone. For her two grown and often ungrateful children my mother baked a tuna casserole and prepared a salmon salad and pickled carrots (sounds gross but they're delicious) and left frozen chicken and steaks in the freezer. Now this might make us sound pathetic, but I don't see it this way. Realistically she knows we could feed ourselves. Neither of us have ever starved when left to our own devices. At the very least both of us have the ability to pick up carry out or call delivery. But my lovely mother simply did something kind and wonderfully maternal. And kind and maternal gestures are often completely unnecessary and completely take us back to that childlike place where we are safe and taken care of.

So basically the moral of this story is that I should stop bitching so much and just appreciate living at home for as long as I'm here.

Laundry nagging and all.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

i want to go to there

Mad Men
's Jon Hamm. This past Thursday's episode of 30 Rock. Too awesome...must form complete sentence...but can't...too distracted by the mental image of a floppy haired, messenger bag wearing, cupcake baking, imaginary dog rescuing, glasses wearing, GORGEOUS specimen of man that is Mr. Don Draper playing Tina Fey (!)'s new love interest/attempted date rape victim.

You see, John Hamm as Don Draper, well he um, gets me a little, ahem, hot and bothered. Those suits, that hair, the frigid and slightly terrifying masculinity. But John Hamm in real life is somehow even better. Have you seen those Gap ads?! And from the interviews I've watched he's hilarious, like really funny and almost a little dorky which if you'd only seen him in Mad Men you would never even think possible, because Don Draper is many things, but a dork is not one of them. But he is kind of a dork, in that very adorable and self deprecating way. And his role in 30 Rock is almost just a complete send up of how insanely perfect John Hamm is. Anyone who looks like him should be a sociopath (the aforementioned Don Draper) or at the very least gay. But he's very much neither on 30 Rock (and hopefully neither in real life). He's just this beauitful man who owns an ice cream maker and gives to charities and rents Muppets Take Manhattan. Of course Liz Lemon steals his mail, hatches an evil plan of seduction and roofies him. Who wouldn't?!

And if you're somehow not convinced of the utter hotness and perfection that is Jon Hamm. Then well, just please watch this.

Monday, February 2, 2009

oh what a game

So I swear to GOD that this blog has not turned into Liz's Wonderful World of Tennis. I know that I've been writing a lot about tennis lately, but the Aussie Open is officially over so it should be at least a few weeks until I get to watch another live tennis match, and even then it won't be a major. I love all tennis, but best of five sets over two weeks is really what gets my tennis passion stirred. But I just have to write about what went down in the final. So Sunday was the Superbowl, an event that I do enjoy and that I willingly take part in every year (take part meaning eating and drinking while watching from a couch, not you know, participating in the game). I read today that it was the second most watched Superbowl in history. How marked a contrast then between the big football match with all the fancy commercials that almost everyone watched and the first major tennis final of the year, which played out on American television in the very early hours of morning, while most of the nation slept soundly on.

It's a shame really, a shame that Australia is a crazy different time zone, and a shame that tennis isn't really that popular in the US. Because what happened on Sunday morning, when it was still dark out, was another brilliant chapter in one of the all time greatest rivalries not just in tennis, but in sports. It wasn't Wimbledon. The quality dipped at times, particularly from poor Federer in the 5th. There weren't rain delays and fading light. There wasn't a beautiful, perfect ending. But there was greatness befitting the stature of these two players. I won't bore you with the details and match stats because you can get them from various sports sections or websites. What you need to know, if you're a tennis fan or not, what you really need to know to understand what happened in Melbourne, is that Roger Federer dissolved into tears on the podium after the match.

They weren't happy tears or victorious tears or any of the usual tears we're accustomed to seeing from Roger. They were tears of absolute pain, of the bitterness of yet another loss to the Spaniard in the bandana. It wasn't like the French, which Rafa owns. It wasn't even Wimbledon, which Nadal had to claw toward and pry out of Federer's vicelike grip after three tries. This was the Australian Open, a hard court major, a refuge for Federer, somewhere where his greatness was still assured, where the threat of Rafa didn't loom so large. Yet like he has done so many times in the past year, Rafa found a way to win, to bring into question Federer's greatness by being great in his own right, by suggesting that history doesn't only belong to Roger, that it might just well belong to the kid from Majorca. Roger's tears summed up the match for me. It summed up the sheer impossibility and demoralizing effect for Federer of playing Nadal right now, how even at Federer's best (like at Wimbledon) or at his not so great (see 5th set of this final), Rafa plays exactly the same way-to win. And he does. He's so tough, mentally and phsyically. I mean he played the longest match in Australian Open history in the semis and somehow he comes out less than two days later and plays for another four plus hours and wins it.

I, like so many others, underestimated Nadal in this final. Part of it was just assuming he would be exhuasted after the Verdasco marathon. And I guess another part is just assuming that Federer would still have Rafa's number on a hard court, even if he had it on no other surface right now. Maybe despite my love for Nadal, a small part of me hoped that Federer would get this one, that he'd fight his way back into the rivalry, really make it interesting in 2009. I set my alarm for about an hour into the match, assuming I would wake up, see Federer dominating, and maybe catch the last set. But I turned on the match around 5am and Nadal had won the first set. And I wasn't tired anymore. I sat in the dark and watched the next four sets unfold, saw the ups and the downs, saw the missed oppurtunities, saw Federer fold in the fifth set after Nadal's complete refusal to do the same. I saw Nadal fall to his back after match point, saw this 22 year old collect his 6th grand slam trophy, the same 22 year old who was at one time brushed off as only a clay courter, the same 22 year old who could never really be a threat on a hard court.

And along with so many others, I saw Federer collect his runner up trophy from Rod Laver and start to cry. I watched him hold it in at first, and then dissolve into great, heaving sobs at the microphone before backing away, unable to speak. I watched along with a stunned croud and a Nadal also brought to tears by the moment. And honestly it hurt. I felt for the guy. I've never been a huge Federer fan. I always respected his talent, watched many of his matches just to witness such brilliance. I think he seems like a classy, decent man, which is pretty amazing when you consider how rich he is. But he's been hard to root for. He's been too perfect, too flawless. So many of his matches, especially before 2008, were just showcases for his talent. His opponents might as well have been practice partners. There was something sterile and hollow about Federer to me, not because he seemed like a hollow person, but just because his victories were rarely hard fought and his losses were so few and far between. But over the last year, I've seen a new Federer, a Federer holding a runner up trophy with drooping shoulders and red eyes. I've seen a Federer shaking his head in frustration at the back of the court while Rafa sends yet another blistering forehand past him.

I've seen a Federer who has had to fight and scrape and leave all of his blood, sweat and tears on a court. And on Sunday morning, for the first time, I saw Federer as human, vulnerable and at a loss for words. He wasn't a living legend standing there. He wasn't Federer the great. He was Roger, a 27 year old who was being forced to watch history and everyone's expectations and his own greatness slip though his fingers, maybe not forever, but at least for that moment. He was Roger, a competitor in ever sense of the word, forced to stand there and smile in front of thousands of people after a brutal and demoralizing loss. And no matter what happens this year, no matter what happens in the rest of his career, I think Federer has won more fans and more support in his last two major losses than he had in all of his illustrious wins. Roger's brilliance comes from forehands and serves and footwork and movement. But his greatness and his legacy will come from his rivalry with Rafa. They're linked now, permanently, and Rafa has done what no one else could do. He hasn't just proved that Federer is beatable. He's provided a foil for Federer, someone who allows Roger's passion and heart and fight and love for the game to shine, even if the scoreboard puts him on bottom. I'm not sure anyone else could do that. And I think it will only add to Federer's legend. We've all known that Federer wanted to pass Pete. We've all known how committed he is to stamping his place on history. But maybe for the first time we know how much this fight costs him, how much of himself he's given to this game, and how much is at stake every time he walks on court. And right now he's facing the fight of his career, a rival who at least for the moment stands in the way.

So I hope you at least got the chance to watch some of the match, at least highlights. But I also hope you got to watch what happened after the match. I haven't even mentioned the moment where Nadal went up to accept his trophy and immediately went back to Federer, put his arm around him like a brother, and touched his head ever so slightly against the head of his so called nemesis. It was an absolutely beauitful moment, and it makes me proud to be a tennis fan right now. How many other sports would you see that happen? There's so much macho posturing and tough talking and butting heads in so many other sports. And so to see a moment so infused with respect and admiration and empathy, well it was downright poignant. Made me cry at least. I'm pretty darn happy to be a tennis fan right now. I know the so called, "big event" on Sunday was that little football game in Tampa. But for me, the game of the day was the one that started before the sun came up, the one without a halftime show, without egregious corporate sponsors, without even commercials for the duration of the fifth set. It was a game, pure and simple, no distractions, no pomp and circumstance. And as it has been so many times between these two, it was one hell of a game.

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