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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: THE LITTLE BOOK by Selden Edwards

Time Travel fiction
Plume, 2009
416 pages  $15.00 

When Selden Edwards began kicking around the idea for this book in 1974, he happened by chance on its principal setting—1897 Vienna—and discovered to his delight that it was a convergence of all sorts. When else did Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Mark Twain, and Adolf Hitler come so close together? Add to the mix a displaced time traveler, his legendary father, his beautiful young lover, his long-suffering mother, and you’ve got a story that spans the centuries and holds in the balance the darkest moments of the twentieth century.

In fact, Vienna at this time straddled two colliding centuries: the Victorian age and the modern age; empires teetering on the brink of democracy; women struggling to be heard in the bedroom and at the polls; the specter of anti-Semitism; the tumult of the Industrial Revolution giving way to the airplane, the Panzer tank, the atom bomb. The Viennese could eat pastry, talk politics, and waltz to their hearts’ content, but their world was about to come crashing down around their ears, and in this gem of a novel, the reader can feel that portent hanging heavy in the air—and not just because we know what’s about to occur.

Into this pressure cooker steps Wheeler Burden—scholar, athlete, 1970s rock star—thrown into the past without knowing why or how. Wheeler’s colorful life up until this point is a subplot the author deftly weaves in and out of his current dilemma as Wheeler finds his sea legs. The twists and turns of plot keep us guessing to the end, and while they’re entertaining and make for a wickedly fun read, deeper questions are at stake: What is time? Do we create our own future, or is it laid out before us like a map, a journey that fate forces us to trudge along? How do we define heroism and the nature of love? How much right do we have to tamper with the lives of others?

Big questions and a fascinating story, laced with warm, lovely characters and historical figures. No wonder Edwards took more than 30 years to pen this one. We’ll be talking about it for a lot longer than that.

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