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The Little Book
Selden Edwards
Narrated by Jeff Woodman, unabridged
Penguin Audio, 15 hours

The Little Book
Selden Edwards
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. It is his first novel. 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.

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A review by Sarah Trowbridge

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Who is Wheeler Burden and why does he suddenly find himself transported from 1988 San Francisco to 1897 Vienna? From the opening paragraphs of The Little Book, the reader wants to know. In the course of the next 15 hours, the story unfolds over various decades, tying together the stories of Wheeler, his mother Flora and his father Dilly, his grandmother Eleanor, the legendary prep-school teacher Arnauld Esterhazy, and many supporting characters in both centuries.

Wheeler Burden, born shortly before the end of World War II, does not remember his father Dilly Burden, but he grows up in the shadow of Dilly's legend. Dilly died a hero's death in the war as a spy for the European resistance, after leaving his indelible mark at St. Gregory's prep school and Harvard. Wheeler is a red-blooded, baseball-playing American boy who grows up with his widowed mother in California farm country, then attends both St. Greg's and Harvard, following in his father's footsteps and approaching their strangely intertwined destinies. A chance encounter with Buddy Holly in 1959, just days before the rock legend's tragic death, alters the path of Wheeler's life forever. He leaves Harvard to pursue a musical career, leading his band Shadow Self in appearances at the legendary venues of Woodstock and Altamont. Rock-and-roll stardom leads to early retirement and a book deal in his forties, and after a bookstore signing one night in 1988, Wheeler is approached by a gunman. The next thing he knows, he is on the streets of Vienna in 1897, where he is destined to meet not only his father Dilly (also displaced in time, and younger than Wheeler is now) but other members of his family and a gallery of historic figures both actual and fictional.

With echoes of both Jack Finney and John Irving, The Little Book is a sprawling narrative that spans a century and moves back and forth between mid-twentieth-century America and late-nineteenth-century Austria, with a couple of interludes in World War II Europe. The story is told primarily from the points of view of Wheeler Burden and of one Weezie Putnam, a nineteenth-century Bostonian visiting Vienna, whose true relationship to Wheeler the reader understands before he ever figures it out. Dilly's story is filled in gradually through his relating it to Wheeler in conversation.

Reader Jeff Woodman delivers a mostly competent performance, but it is rather shocking that the production staff failed to coach him in certain basic points of German pronunciation. In a story set in Vienna, employing a number of German names and expressions, and giving voice to several native German speakers, this glaring oversight is a repeated source of distraction and frustration for any listener with a passing knowledge of how German is supposed to sound. Perhaps if the story itself had lived up to its promise, this detail of its narration would not have stood out quite so much.

A story in which the protagonist not only meets Buddy Holly but also spends a significant amount of time in conversation with the young Sigmund Freud and even has a brief encounter with an eight-year-old Adolf Hitler is an overtly ambitious one. However, The Little Book never completely lives up to its grand pretensions. Clearly drawn as larger-than-life figures, Wheeler and Dilly Burden somehow lack both depth and weight, and they float above the landscape of the story like the giant balloons in a Macy's parade. The question of exactly why (never mind how) both Wheeler and Dilly end up transported to fin-de-siècle Vienna is never satisfactorily addressed. Of course, it all turns out to be part of an elaborate knot of interlocking incidents and connections, with a profound effect on certain key twentieth century events... and yet in the end the novel fails to satisfy.

Copyright © 2008 Sarah Trowbridge

Sarah Trowbridge reads (and listens) compulsively, chronically, and eclectically. She is a public librarian in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia.


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