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Book review: ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’

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Note: This review contains some spoilers.

I initially rated this book three stars, but after giving it some thought and when comparing it to literary classics — the standard by which I judge all novels — I downgraded it to two stars.

sawtelle

This highly ambitious work, a loose retelling of Hamlet in rural Wisconsin, didn’t quite the deliver, both on the quality of the writing and the plot. At times, the writing approached the exceptional, particularly when we got to see the point of view of Edgar’s dog, Almondine, or when Edgar saw his dead father, but those moments were fleeting. More times than not, the plot seemed to drag a bit, especially during Edgar’s time away from home in the forest with the dogs. Other than Edgar and perhaps Gar, the father, the characters seemed a bit flat. Claude, Gar’s brother, could have been a complex character as the scheming deviant, but his motivations aren’t fleshed out very well. How does a guy go from a blacksheep-type figure in the family, who has some arguments with his brother, to a calculating killer? Why is Claude so caught up with Trudy? Was he motivated by jealousy or lust or was he just a sociopath? After the incident with Gar, why is Trudy so resigned to stay with her dead husband’s brother, especially at the expense of her own son’s sanity? Are there no available males back in town?

In 640 pages, these questions could have been more fully explored, but they weren’t, and these are the nuances that separate classic literature from some works of modern fiction that, thanks to low expectations from the public, somehow make it on the best seller list.

While Wroblewski did a good job developing the deep relationships between Edgar, Trudy, his father and Almondine, I don’t think we saw enough of that between Trudy and Claude, which is a pairing that was central in the novel’s conclusion. As for the rest of the plot, the logistics at the end were difficult to visualize. Are we to believe that a blinded policeman, Glen, would or even could pin down a caring mother, while her son risked his life trying to reclaim documents from inside a burning barn? While Claude clearly had evil intentions, we get the impression that Glen wanted to kidnap Edgar for questioning, not be complicit in a murder, so once Glen realized that he had become tangled up with Trudy on the ground, even if he was in immense pain, why did he not just release her?

All that said, the imagery and the descriptive language at the end was stellar — a high point in the writing — and I liked how Wroblewski wraps up the novel from the viewpoint of the remaining Sawtelle dogs. Unlike some reviewers, I don’t knock the book simply for being a tragedy because life, one way or the other, almost always ends in tragedy. But for all its high ambition in summoning the muse of Shakespeare, the book fell a few degrees short in my estimation.

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Written by Jeremy

July 23rd, 2014 at 11:52 pm

A moral wasteland

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Following is a stirring artistic interpretation on Sam Harris’ now famous speech on the bankruptcy of Christian morality:

Sam Harris- Christian Morality from Kristoffer Hellesmark on Vimeo.

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Written by Jeremy

July 7th, 2014 at 10:41 pm

For God and country … and guns. Lots of guns.

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So, there’s this:

hobbylobby

which was apparently @HollyRFisher’s way of supporting Hobby Lobby, who describes herself on Twitter thusly:

Christian. Wife of an Army combat-infantry vet. Mom of 3. #ProLife #2A #Benghazi #ImpeachObama #tcot #wvpol #wvsen #Israel #HTTR #WhoDey #Reds

And then there’s this strikingly similar pose from an equally nutty fanatic of a different religion side by side with our good friend Holly:

hobbylobby2

Whoever said the following, which is often falsely attributed to Upton Sinclair, was prescient:

When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.

But this statement from Halford E. Luccock in the 1938 work, “Keeping Life Out of Confusion,” is just as poignant:

When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”

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Written by Jeremy

July 7th, 2014 at 10:34 pm

And society crumbles …

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As folks in Colorado looking for “live breaking news” from their local TV station are left staring at a 15-minute video of a melting block of ice. And I refuse to post the actual video of this stupidity. You can watch it there if you like watching ink dry and grass grow.

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Written by Jeremy

July 7th, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Space rock eargasm

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If you enjoyed the now-defunct band, Hum, check this out:

Click here to listen to more and download tracks.

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Written by Jeremy

July 4th, 2014 at 2:40 pm

50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

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I’ve seen surprisingly little coverage of this, but today yesterday June 2 marked the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, perhaps the single greatest achievement of our time. As we have seen from the bogus Hobby Lobby decision, which set the dangerous precedent that merely professing a sincerity about a belief makes that belief legitimate, the work of equality is not complete until all people without exception have access to health care, personal liberty and marriage equality under the law:

Note: I had every intention of posting this on June 2, but life apparently got in the way.

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Written by Jeremy

July 4th, 2014 at 2:26 pm

Need comfort? Just grab the Bible or ‘Seabiscuit’ or … whatever

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Such is the advice of The Onion columnist Kathy Crines:

We all go through tough times in life. Maybe you’re struggling at work and filled with self-doubt, or perhaps the loss of a loved one has left you wondering if you’re strong enough to carry on. In those dark hours, it’s easy to fall victim to feelings of helplessness. But, fortunately, there’s hope, and it’s as close as your bookshelf.

I’ve found that when I need strength, I can always turn to the Bible or anything else that’s handy.

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. During my long battle to get well, I often took comfort in the Good Book or whatever other book was nearby. When chemotherapy left me too exhausted to even get out of bed, I would find myself picking up the Bible, if that’s what happened to be on my nightstand, and reading a favorite verse or two. But if there happened to be a copy of The Hunger Games there instead, a couple of chapters of that would also do the trick.

God is our strength, we read in Psalm 18, and as powerless as I felt during those agonizing months, I discovered courage in His wisdom when it was within arm’s reach, just as I did with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and David Baldacci’s thriller Stone Cold.

Throughout my life, in fact, the Bible or some other reading material has been there when I needed it most. When I lost my job and worried about how I was going to scrape together next month’s rent in the middle of a brutal recession, I often relied on the Bible, A Tale Of Two Cities, In Cold Blood, The Audacity Of Hope, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Seabiscuit, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a pocket road atlas of the Great Lakes region, The Oxford Companion To Ships And The Sea, or Fodor’s Montréal And Québec City 2009.

Anything lying around, to be honest. …

Read more here.

Or, I’ve often contended, simply cast your worries on the nearest rock. It produces exactly the same “burden lifting” effect.

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Written by Jeremy

June 27th, 2014 at 4:11 pm

One step closer to equal rights

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That it has taken until the year 2014 to get where we are on marriage equality, with most Southern states still woefully behind the curve, is a said testimony for a nation that touts equality as its highest calling. As Haynes, with Newseum reports, the “tide” of public sentiment “has turned,” and the arc of history is now bending toward equality under the law.

Following is his column for June 26:

Poll: Marriage equality trumps religious objections

By Charles C. Haynes

A solid majority of Americans now support equal treatment for same-sex couples despite religious objections, according to the State of the First Amendment survey released this week by the First Amendment Center.

Sixty-one percent of respondents agree that the government should require religiously affiliated groups that receive government funding to provide health care benefits to same-sex partners of employees — even when the religious group opposes same-sex marriage.

And 54% of the public agree that a business providing wedding services to the public should be required to serve same-sex couples, even if the business owner objects to gay marriage on religious grounds.

These findings are consistent with the dramatic rise in public support for gay marriage — 59% in a recent ABC News/Washington Post survey (75% among those under 30).

What’s somewhat surprising, however, is the strength of that support in the face of religious objections. When the first legal same-sex marriage was performed in Massachusetts ten years ago, conservative religious groups were able to mobilize voters to approve laws and constitutional amendments in many states — including deep blue California — banning gay marriage.

Now the tide has turned — not only in the courts (bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana and Utah were struck down just this week), but also in the court of public opinion.

While gay marriage remains unpopular in some red states, many conservative politicians and religious leaders have toned down the rhetoric as the public continues to migrate toward support for marriage equality.

Early in the debate, religious objectors to same-sex marriage appeared to enjoy broad public support for their efforts to secure religious exceptions to laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. That may no longer be the case.

A defining moment came earlier this year in Arizona when the conservative governor vetoed a bill that would have made it possible for religious business owners to seek an exemption from providing wedding services to same-sex couples.

Lost in the Arizona debate were the nuances of the proposed law: It would only have allowed businesses to make a claim for religious accommodation — but with no guarantee of the outcome.

In the mind of the public, however, the Arizona legislature was attempting to legalize discrimination against gay couples in the name of religious freedom. Rather than be labeled the “no gays allowed” state, the Chamber of Commerce and many Republican leaders joined LGBT rights groups in the successful campaign to persuade the governor to veto the bill.

As the Arizona outcome suggests, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is fast becoming politically and socially unacceptable. For a growing number of Americans, the movement for marriage equality is all about equal treatment under the law.

Of course, religious groups have a constitutional right to oppose gay marriage and to refuse to perform same-sex weddings. And as long as we uphold the First Amendment, that will continue to be the case.

But when religiously affiliated groups receive tax dollars to deliver social services or when wedding providers open their doors to serve the public, most Americans now believe gay couples should be treated just like everyone else.

In the battle over equal treatment for same-sex couples, it’s all over but the shouting.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001.

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Written by Jeremy

June 27th, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Dawkins: Evolution ‘no comparison’ to Genesis

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It really is an enormously exciting thought that we are cousins of all living creatures, that we have a history of 4 billion years of slow gradual, evolution — just think about 4 billions years — of slow gradual history. That’s not something that we can easily take on board, but the effort of doing so is well worth it. It’s such a beautiful thought that we are the heirs of 4 billion years — maybe 3.5 billion years of evolution — and that we are cousins of all living things. When you put that against the measly, piddling little ideas that are in Genesis, it’s just no comparison, and it’s a sad and diminishing deprivation of a child’s opportunities to be denied that knowledge.

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Written by Jeremy

June 26th, 2014 at 5:25 pm

Top 50 alternative bands of all time: 20-29

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Click here to see picks 30-39.

20. The Flaming Lips

Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face/Do you realize we’re floating in space/Do you realize that happiness makes you cry/Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes let them know/You realize that life goes fast/It’s hard to make the good things last/You realize the sun doesn’t go down/It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round

Do You Realize/Do You Realize/that everyone you know/Someday will die

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes let them know/You realize that life goes fast/It’s hard to make the good things last/You realize the sun doesn’t go down/It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round

Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face/Do you realize

21. Weezer — Weezer blazed onto the scene as a band that still had that metallic punch of guitar distortion and fuzz, but without all of the angst or pensiveness of some of their contemporaries. While the self-titled “Blue Album” and “Pinkerton” are beloved fan classics, the band still enjoyed with acclaimed success the “Green Album,” “Maladiot” and “Make Believe,” selling a total of more than 9.2 million albums in the United States and about 17.5 million worldwide. “Make Believed” reached number two on the U.S. charts and number one in Canada. And, of course, all those accolades aside, they brought geek rock to the mainstream:

22. The Replacements  No top alternative list would be complete without The Replacements, and they just edge out Sonic Youth and the Meat Puppets for their sheer longevity and influence on the industry.

23. Depeche Mode  Not to overstate matters, but Q Magazine has listed Depeche Mode as one of the 50 bands that changed the world, and “the most popular electronic band the world has ever known.” At more than 75 million albums and singles sold worldwide, Depeche Mode is one of the most successful bands of all time. Enough said:

24. The Offspring  One of the highest selling punk rock bands in history, The Offspring’s third album, “Smash,” sold 20 million by itself, with the breakout tracks, “Self Esteem,” “Come Out and Play” and “Gotta Get Away.” After the mediocre offering, “Ixnay on the Hombre,” The Offspring enjoyed its greatest mainstream popularity to date with “Americana,” with the songs “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” and “The Kids Aren’t Alright.” The band had another standout track in 2012 with “Days Go By.”

25. Arcade Fire  With just four albums under their belts since the release of “Funeral” in 2004, Arcade Fire has seen a meteoric rise in popularity, basically skipping over the sophomore slump phase and going straight to cult status as one of the most innovative, diverse acts of this generation. Among their many accolades, the band won the Grammy of the Year award for their album, “The Suburbs.” Their most recent offering was “The Reflektor, which “Rolling Stone” named the top five release of 2013. Here they are performing the French cover, “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son:”

26. Sonic Youth  Sonic Youth has been around for as long as R.E.M. and is an influential as any other band on this list. With their experimental and ferocious guitar style, they came to define alternative grunge before grunge was a thing, releasing five albums before 1990s. An idyllic photo of band member Kim Gordon walking across her bass tells the story of “disaffected youth” like no band before them could. And one only has to listen to the opening seconds of “Kool Thing” to hear the inspiration behind songs like Nirvana’s “Aneurysm” and many others.

27. Coldplay  To say that Coldplay has, at least temporarily, abandoned their roots is probably a mild understatement here in 2014 with the release of the squeaky clean, synth-pop, lovefest known as “Ghost Stories,” but the band was once an influential rock act in the same vein of Oasis, Radiohead and U2. While I personally enjoyed parts of “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends” (not the least of which was a tune that didn’t even make it onto the official cut, “Life in Technicolor II“), I view “X&Y” as Coldplay’s last true rock album. The rest of it — well, let’s just stick with classics: “X&Y,” “A Rush of Blood to the Head” and “Parachutes.” That’s really all the Coldplay you need to put them in the top 30 on this list.

28. Bush  Bush’s “Sixteen Stone” was one of a handful alternative rock albums in the 1990s in which almost half the record became a radio single. Off the strength of singles, “Everything Zen,” “Come Down,” “Glycerine,” “Machine Head” and “Little Things,” the debut album sold more than 10 million albums in the United States, although the band didn’t enjoy equal success in their native England. After 1996′s “Razorblade Suitcase,” the band fell out of the mainstream until 2011 when their new album, “Sea of Memories,” hit number 18 on the Billboard Top 200 chart.

29. Meat Puppets  Like Teenage Fanclub, Sonic Youth, The Replacements and The Flaming Lips, Meat Puppets influenced countless bands coming out of the early 1990s alternative rock scene, including Nirvana, Sound Garden and Dinosaur Jr.:

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Written by Jeremy

June 25th, 2014 at 5:05 pm

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