Friday, April 24, 2009

Edgar Sawtelle and inevitability

After encountering rapturous blog reviews about David Wroblewski’s debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I was looking forward to experiencing the story for myself.

But, despite the fact I knew there were parallels with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it didn’t dawn on me this would be a tragedy until I was about 30 pages from the end.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is set in rural Wisconsin in the first half of the 20th century, on a farm where the Sawtelle family raise a fictional breed of dog, bred for its qualities as a companion, rather than physical traits.

Edgar is a normal boy except for the inexplicable fact he’s never been able to make a sound. His idyllic life is shattered when his father, Gar, mysteriously dies, and then appears to him as a ghost one rainy night - not long after Edgar's uncle moves into the farm to take Gar's place in more ways than one.

The ghostly visit sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Edgar running away with three of the dogs he's been raising and training – and leaving behind faithful Almondine, the aging dog who knows and loves him best.

So, as I was caught up in the sadness of Edgar's separation from Almondine and mesmerised by his growing understanding of the world and his place in it, I wasn’t paying attention to the bigger picture.

Yes, I could feel the tension building. Yes, I knew violence was coming. And still it took me by surprise. But in hindsight, when I looked back at the story in its entirety, it’s obvious the ending (so poignant and perfect in its context) was inevitable.

And somehow, that makes it easier to bear. Once certain events were set in motion, there was nothing Edgar could have done to change the outcome (unless, of course, Wroblewski wanted to write a very different novel).

Is that what it’s like in life? If we know we could have changed something, and didn’t, outcomes are harder to bear. But if there's no chance of influencing an outcome –averting tragedy – can we somehow come to terms with it a little easier? Or is that too fatalistic a view on life?

But, I digress.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a beautifully written novel, at times tender, funny, suspenseful and heartbreaking.

Most of the narrative is told from Edgar’s viewpoint. Some of it from characters we barely know. Occasionally we even hear Almondine’s voice.

The plot is intricate, and builds in pace towards the end, but Wroblewski is just as interested in the characters and their relationships and observations, and some of his prose is pure poetry.

Despite being a tragedy in the literary sense, this is not a depressing book – even if the hope offered at the end comes from an unexpected source.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The ebook debate: part 2

A few weeks back, we chatted about the appeal (or not) of ebooks, and how they compared to traditional books.

Everyone who commented talked about the tactile nature of books, and how – even though an ebook might be more convenient – it lacked the emotional experience of holding a treasured story in your hands, and then having it remain a part of your life by being visible on a book shelf.

The looming ebook era in Australia was the subject of a well-researched article by the Australian Review’s Rosemary Sorensen this past weekend.

Ebooks have not yet taken off in Australia, but Sorenson notes that if our country’s take up of the mobile phone is anything to go by, ebook take up will be swift.

However, no-one can yet agree on what that will mean, or how it will affect the emotional and nostalgic impact books have in our lives.

Sorenson quotes author Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age) as saying that if we replace print with screen-based text, “we will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another. We will have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associated relationships of ideas and their creators”.

By that, I assume he means the production, look and feel of original books and their covers, which says much about the technology, artistry and social attitudes of the time in which it was published.

If the day comes when there exist nothing but ebooks, there will never again be “first editions” or “special editions” … just old electronic files.

For some, the end of the printed book is inevitable. In Sorenson’s article, New York-based Bob Stein compares the book as a form with architecture that’s no longer possible to build: “I love gothic churches and I’m sorry we don’t build them anymore, but we don’t. They’ve served their function and so has the 800 page novel. It was really cool, the novel, and I’ve spent a lot of time curled up with good ones, but new technologies give rise to new forms. Humans were not born with a gene that made us gravitate to print.”

And yet, for others, ebooks may create more demand for the paper version. Random House marketing director Brett Osmond suggests readers might use more than one format to get through a single story. “In the future, you may simply buy the book and are able to read it in a range of formats. You might begin with a paper version, then take a chapter on your on your e-reader while you’re walking the dog or pick it up on your computer.”

In this scenario, you buy the story, and it’s up to you how you actually consume it – a fascinating and revolutionary idea, and one that would require revolutionising the publishing industry to accommodate it.

What do you think of that idea? Would you be more inclined to use an e-reader if it was only one format available to you as you read a book, rather than the only format? Is it more acceptable to traditional book lovers to have the choice of both experiences – tactile and convenient?

I will always want physical books – no question. But there is some appeal to having the convenience of being able to read a couple of chapters on a compact e-reader in situations when it’s not practical to carry around a large book.

What does everyone think?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Adaptations - are they necessary?

This blog, among countless others, has previously considered the debate on whether film adaptations improve or detract from the stories told by much-loved books.

Another take on the debate, provided by Salman Rushdie in the past week, is not just whether or not a film is better than its original source material, but whether or not that source material should have been adapted in the first place.

It’s a topic recently tackled by the Booking Through Thursday meme, which asked bloggers to name the books they’d most like to see adapted to film, as well as those they never wanted to see on the big (or small) screen.

It was interesting to see the same books featuring on both sides of the argument. Some readers wanted to see an adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (which is handy, given there’s apparently one in the works starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams) and Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, while others were equally adamant neither should be touched by film-makers.

Many readers see a film or television adaptation as a chance to spend more time with characters they love. While this may not please those more interested in the literary and artistic value of adaptations, it’s nevertheless a valid response from the point of view of escapism, and personal attachment to particular stories and characters.

Those bloggers who expressed horror at the idea of their favourite read being turned into a film were generally convinced the essence of the story – the poetry of the language, the inner journey of a narrative character – couldn’t be given justice by sound and movement alone, no matter how good the adaptation.

Rushdie, in the Weekend Australian Review on March 28-29, doesn’t confine his comments to just books adapted into movies, but any piece of work adapted by another artist, whether in the same medium (iconic songs “re-imagined by others) or different (plays and books into films and vice versa).

He says the insatiable process to create the current flood of adaptations can sometimes seem “world-swallowing, as if we now live in a culture that endlessly cannibalises itself, so that, eventually, it will have eaten itself up completely”.

Rushdie doesn’t underplay the difficulties facing those intent on adapting a story into a new creative form. They are forced with tough choices: what to keep, what to toss out, what to change and where to draw the line.

“The question of essences remains at the heart of the adaptive act; how to make a second version of a first thing, of a book or film or poem or of yourself, that is successfully its own, new thing and yet carries with it the essence, the spirit, the soul of the first thing, the thing that you yourself, or your book or poem or film originally were.”

For me, I think any adaptation needs to have its own creative merit, while remaining as faithful as possible to the original source material – and yes, I realise this is a tough ask.

Stephen King once said something along the lines of “a crap film doesn’t make a good book bad”, which, of course is true. It’s just that a crap film tends to annoy the hell out of those who loved the book.

What do you think? Does an adaptation influence how you feel about the original work? Are there books you never want to see made into films?