Selden Edwards The Little Book: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780452295513

The Little Book: A Novel

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9780452295513: The Little Book: A Novel
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Thirty years in the writing, Selden Edwards' dazzling first novel is an irresistible triumph of the imagination. Wheeler Burden-banking heir, philosopher, student of history, legend's son, rock idol, writer, lover, recluse, half-Jew, and Harvard baseball hero-one day finds himself wandering not in his hometown of San Francisco in 1988 but in a city and time he knows mysteriously well: Vienna, 1897. Before long, Wheeler acquires a mentor in Sigmund Freud, a bitter rival, a powerful crush on a luminous young woman, and encounters everyone from an eight-year-old Adolf Hitler to Mark Twain as well as the young members of his own family. Solving the riddle of Wheeler's dislocation in time will ultimately reveal nothing short of one eccentric family's unrivaled impact upon the course of human history.

Edwards, author of The Lost Prince, brilliantly weaves romance, art, history, and culture in this unforgettable and dazzling debut novel.

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About the Author:

Selden Edwards began writing The Little Book as a young English teacher in 1974, and continued to layer and refine the manuscript until its completion in 2007. He most recently authored The Lost Prince. He spent his career as headmaster at several independent schools across the country, and for over forty years has been secretary of his class at Princeton, where he also played basketball. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.

From The Washington Post:

Reviewed by Ron Charles

[...] When California rock legend Wheeler Burden wakes up in 1897 Vienna -- 50 years before his own birth -- he has no idea how he got there or how he'll get back, but he recognizes the city from the stories told by his favorite prep school teacher. [...]

What's weirdest about this weird story is how straight-faced Edwards plays it. As The Little Book jumps back and forth in time, everything here signals the wackiness of John Irving or John Barth, but Edwards moves through his chronology-scrambled fantasy with such earnestness and nostalgia that he smothers its potential comedy.

That problem is particularly egregious in the chapters at the St. Gregory's School in Boston, where Wheeler spends his teen years. There we meet his prep school mentor, Arnauld Esterhazy, nicknamed "the Venerable Haze," who's taught history for more than 40 years. Edwards, who went to a Boston prep school himself and later worked for several private schools, suggests in an author's note that these scenes stem from beloved memories, but that lack of emotional distance leaves no room for irony. The narrator lavishes all kinds of apparently sincere praise upon the Venerable Haze, but to me he sounds like Miss Jean Brodie in drag. Haze refers to his student devotees as his "Jung Wien." When he first meets Wheeler, he says, "We have much to learn from you, Herr Burden, as we begin writing on your tabula rasa." He prattles on about Vienna during its "time of delusive splendor." He frequently reads passages about the city "with great reverence" from "his prized source, the 'Little Book,' " and then asks the kids, "Isn't that writing absolutely exquisite?" This sounds satirical, but it's not meant to be. Edwards claims that "over the years his Jung Wien, sophisticated private school boys who could be cynical about so much in their lives, rarely directed any of their derision at the 'Little Book.' " We never hear anything from this book ourselves, but we're told again and again how great it is.

In fact, Edwards makes so many hyperbolic claims that The Little Book begins to sound rather flat, like a tall tale told without a wink. Edwards can't stop petting Wheeler and reminding us how wonderful he is. Of course, he's incredibly good looking and sexually athletic, but he also writes a foundational work of 20th-century philosophy and inspires "the beginning of the American feminist movement." (You didn't think women could do that on their own, did you?) And he throws the fastest pitch in college baseball (at Harvard, naturally). Then he writes "the most famous song of the 1970s" and becomes "one of People magazine's Most Recognizable." Then he publishes a bestselling book in the 1980s. The whole narrative is soggy with hero-worship, like the fantasy of a skinny teenage boy staring into a mirror.

Edwards does far better describing the coffeehaus culture of prewar Vienna in all its beauty, political agitation and rising anti-Semitism. Some of the historical figures here during the fin de siècle make nice cameos, too, such as Gustav Mahler and Mark Twain. After Wheeler pops into the late 19th century, he supports himself in Vienna by telling the story of his life to a young doctor named Sigmund Freud, who's convinced this strange man is seriously delusional. Their discussions provide an interesting snapshot of Freud's work in progress, but, unfortunately, the doctor never springs to life, largely because Edwards won't allow anyone to upstage Wheeler. Even the founder of modern psychology must take pointers from this brilliant rock-star time-traveler.

In the end we learn that Wheeler's family is responsible for just about every major event in the 20th century. Including the Frisbee. But we never know why or why their "lives weave together in a fatal and continuous and repeating loop." [...]


Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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