Book Review: The Call of the Wild

When Sarah’s 2013 Classic Challenge included the category “Classics Involving Animals,” I admit I was somewhat disappointed. I am not an animal person. Not to say I want to see them harmed. I just don’t relate to them much.

With a sigh, I chose Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and, if you note the date of this review, you’ll see that I left it until the very, very last minute to read.
Yet, I enjoyed the book. It tells the story of Buck, a dog living the life on a California ranch. Part St. Bernard, part Scotch shepherd, Buck is a large, strong dog who is kidnapped and sold to a network providing sled dogs for the Alaskan Gold Rush. Told primarily from Buck’s point of view, he faces challenge after challenge in the icy wilderness of the North.

A while back, my husband ordered, via Netflix, the 2008 Discovery Channel reality show entitled Iditarod: Toughest Race on Earth. I was fascinated and hooked to the drama of this grueling race. Initially, I was put off by the arduous training and brutal aspects of the sled race. But, as I got more into the show, I was amazed how the dogs interacted with each other and their dedication to the work before them.

Without this introduction to these work dogs, I would never have accepted London’s “personification” of the dog characters. I would never have believed that a sled dog too injured or sick to pull would be heartsick when cut from the team. However, the dogs on the television show became despondent when they couldn’t pull.

In London’s book, a dog named Dave became too sick to run. The mushers took him out of the harness so that he could run free, hopefully resting and recovering. But Dave bit through the harness that connected his replacement to the other dogs and stood firmly in front of the pack, daring them to go on without him. I learned this is not romanticism. These dogs are that dedicated.

SPOILER ALERT: At the end, Buck feels a call he cannot resist and returns completely to the wildness of his ancestors. He is then completely fulfilled. Here London is saying that our true natures cannot be fully bred out of us. Does that relates to us humans as well? Is our history hard-wired inside us?

I’m still not an animal person, but I have an enormous respect for these sled dogs in real life and in fiction.

Book Review: Kidnapped

I’ve discovered I love nineteenth century adventure stories.

For the “Back to the Classics Challenge” sponsored by the blog Sarah Reads Too Much, I read The Three Musketeers (see review) in January and now Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

When published in 1886, Kidnappedwas already historical fiction based in part on a real life struggle between England’s King George (Could he get along with anyone?) and the Scottish Highlanders. It centers on a 1752 event known as the Appin Murder where the king’s agent, Colin Roy Campbell, was murdered by a sniper. Alan Breck Stewart, a key character in Kidnapped, was accused and convicted of this murder in absentia. The event was also featured in Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy.

In Stevenson’s novel, seventeen-year-old David Balfour (fictional) is kidnapped and on his way to the American plantations as a slave (many are unaware of colonial America’s white slavery) when the ship picks up a stranded Alan Stewart. The two become allies against a sinister captain and crew when their own ship hits a reef and sinks. The remainder of the book is a fictionalized version of the intrigue surrounding the Appin Murder and its aftermath.

Like The Three Musketeers, the book is crammed with compelling characters and fast-paced action that kept me glued to the pages. I read it on a weekend car trip and finished it within hours of arriving home. The dialogue was often written in a Scottish Highland dialect that I found fun to read and included many local and likely archaic words from that area. The definition of some could not be discerned from the content, but I only looked up a handful to understand the plotline.

I enjoyed reading Treasure Island several years ago especially since we live near Savannah, Georgia, where some of that story is based. But I must say Kidnapped was even better. It is a great book and a fun read.  

Book Review: Light in August by William Faulkner

William Faulkner and I just aren’t going to get along. I chose to read Light in August because I had never read one of his books and knew I’d enjoy his Southern setting. Which I did.

The book starts out with a poverty-stricken pregnant girl, Lena Grove, walking across the Deep South in search of her baby’s father. It then describes Joe Christmas, a pale-skinned man with mixed blood who is hounded from place to place by his “defect.” A sad, lonely minister, Reverend Hightower also has a starring role in this book of engrossing characters.

Characterization is Faulkner’s forte. He goes into detail with even the most minor players so that the reader feels connected to them all. Each backstory was fascinating and made me want to know more and more of each character.

Faulkner also is a master of imagery. Without being too heavy-handed with it (like an author who merely wants to show off his talents), he uses similes and metaphors that caused me to pause at their perfection. Describing a brand new fire truck as arrogant and proud, he adds, “About it hatless men and youths clung with the astounding disregard of physical laws that flies possess.” Yes. Exactly.

So, you may ask, what is the problem? Wordiness. Sentences that drag on, phrase after phrase until I’ve long since lost the gist of it. I am aware (and annoyed) that my “Old Age ADD” may be at play here, but I need to stop after a thought or two and digest before adding any other points to the sentence.

Making my point, I said to my husband, “Listen to this.” I was unable to finish the sentence before he barked, “Enough!” It was just too much!

Sometimes pages and pages seemed to go on like that and I found myself drifting away from the storyline. I often actually lost the storyline altogether, becoming frustrated and confused.

I did finish the book out of stubbornness. But I won’t read another one.  

"A Baby’s Venom:" Beloved

The book, Beloved, has a definite chill to it. The story, the characters, the world in which the characters are forced to exist all drew me in. And there I sat, captivated, uneasy, and creeped out. But mostly captivated.
 
Beloved is the story of slaves, in captivity, during escape, and in freedom, spanning from about 1855 to 1873. The images the book draws of the physical, but mainly emotional trauma of life as another man’s chattel are stark and distressing. Written from the slaves’ point of view, Toni Morrison was able to put me into their shoes more completely than I had felt in all my previous readings. Perhaps it is her gift for poetic prose that touched me so deeply.
Aside from the torment of enslavement, Morrison adds a more mystical, other-worldly aspect to the story with the appearance of the protagonist’s dead child, Beloved, now grown and in new flesh, at the family’s door. Ghosts coming to life don’t unnerve me that much, but while this innocent child returning as a young woman should have induced some sympathy in me, I felt none. She creeped me out.
 
The real value of this book, however, are in the deep insights it offers to us as human beings. One that particularly struck me was that those who consider themselves superior debase themselves in their efforts to keep others “in their place.” Morrison wrote, “Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle…” Through the system of slavery or any effort to demean another people, the oppressors become debauched themselves. Morrison writes, “The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin.” While reading this, the History Channel’s “Ku Klux Klan” was on the television, driving this truism home to me in all its horror. It also is evident in research I’ve done on the 18th century oppression of the Irish peasants.
 
I did find the style and structure of the book to be confusing at first. I had to re-read the initial twenty-five pages before I understood what was what, but I would urge anyone drawn to this book to stick with it. The rewards are bountiful.

Book Review: Moll Flanders

It has always been my contention that while times change and the world does progress (even a sketchy analysis of history tells us that), human nature remains the same. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, written in 1722, supports that view.

In this novel, Moll (not her real name) tells her own difficult and sordid history that begins with her birth to a convicted thief in Newgate Prison. She becomes a ward of the state and after her early years with some gypsies, she is placed in the care of a kind and humane foster mother. The book follows her highs, which are quite lofty, and lows, which are quite sordid.

Despite her poor beginnings, though, many of her lows came of her own poor judgment. Defoe warns in his introduction not to glorify these choices, and the character herself often rails against her own decisions. Yet, through Moll, Defoe shows a fascination with the darker side of life and an understanding of this woman that fascinates me.

Defoe wrote the book at age sixty-two and had been imprisoned twice by that time, once for indebtedness and once for his politics. I imagine he met and spoke to many women like Moll since I’ve learned prisons in those days were not typically segregated by gender.
Moll Flanders as played by Alex
Kingston

Mainly, the book features a flawed character who nonetheless is admirable for her spunk and determination in a world where all the cards are stacked against her. Not only is she lowborn, but she is a woman. Moll makes clear the yoke she is under two hundred years before women were deemed worthy of the right to vote. She is a person of remarkable insight.

Some examples of Moll’s wisdom include “She is always married too soon who gets a bad husband, and she is never married too late who gets a good one” and “From hence ’tis evident to me, that when once we are hardened to crime, no fear can affect us, no example give us any warning.” That second one explains why theft was rampant in an England where the penalty for the crime was hanging. It also explains why the death penalty today is no real deterrent.

This book has captivated me and I will read it again. The language is a challenge since the wording and syntax are somewhat archaic. It took me a couple of chapters to get used to it and I skimmed some, making sure I at least had the gist of the passages.

This aspect did not keep me from understanding and enjoying the story at all. I highly recommend this classic.

"Un pour tous, tous pour un"

Translation: “All for one, one for all,” the famous rallying cry of the three musketeers. Ironically, the phrase was introduced by the one character who was not part of the title trio–D’Artagnan. That’s only one of the surprises I got when reading this classic.

A copy of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers had been patiently waiting for well over a year for me to pick it up. I kept reading other books because, let’s face it, it was written in 1844, meaning tediously verbose descriptions that I would have to skim or skip altogether.

Boy, was I thrilled to find instead lots of action and plenty of snappy dialogue—just my style. Even better, the stiff, macho musketeers I anticipated were superior swordsmen to be sure. But they were also flawed and funny players whose eccentricities were thoroughly endearing.

Set in France around 120 years before the story’s publication, the tale pits the soldiers loyal to the king against the guards of the royal advisor, Cardinal Richelieu. There is plenty of dueling—at the slightest provocation, actually—romance, and intrigue within the court of Louis XIII. The plot twists are fast-paced and fascinating, holding my attention all the way through. In fact, I read the entire book (635 pages) in three days.

We all know about a book’s cover, but I’d also say you can’t tell a book by your stereotypical preconceptions. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a great story. And if you’re bothering to read this review, that would likely be you.

Back to the Classics Challenge 2013

Okay. So this past year, I attempted my very first reading challenge. I pledged to read and review nine classics by December 31st. I read five. Five books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, though, which I found personally enriching. This year, thanks to the blog, Sarah Reads Too Much (http://www.sarahreadstoomuch.com/), I’m trying again. For the 2013 version, there are only six required books to read in predetermined categories, and five optional ones. The six main categories and my choices are below:

Nineteenth Century Classic: Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Twentieth Century Classic: Light in August by William Faulkner
Eighteenth Century Classic: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
African-American related Classic: Beloved by Toni Morrison
Classic Adventure: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Animal-related Classic: Call of the Wild by Jack London

Thanks to Sarah for hosting this challenge. Stay tuned for my reviews throughout the year.

Am I a "Janeite" Now?

Romances are not my genre of choice, but I truly enjoyed Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The writing, while clearly in typical nineteenth-century style, was not bogged down with description like many books of that era–or even some romance novels of today. I found the characters engaging and especially enjoyed the sassy protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet.

Elizabeth and her four sisters are anxiously looking for advantageous marriages to prevent the poverty they face at their father’s death. Having no male heirs, the family estate will be inherited by a distant cousin.

The story revolves around the complications of the Bennet household that includes a detached dad, a mother with the sensibilities of a fifteen-year-old, and five young women engaged in a myriad of flirtations and romantic entanglements. Elizabeth is the most intelligent of the daughters and more adverse to an unhappy marriage than a reduced station in life, proven by her refusal to marry the cousin in question.

Elizabeth meets Mr. Darby, the close friend of her sister, Jane’s, beau, and immediately finds him detestable. She is appalled when he also requests her hand in marriage and, in no uncertain terms, tells him exactly how she feels about him. Not your usual demure ingenue. By the next morning, however, she makes discoveries that shake her formidable self-confidence to the core. A tumble of events follows that kept me glued to the book until the last word.

The story takes place amid the conventions and hierarchy of the nineteenth-century English gentry which fascinated, yet confused me. Published in 1812, Austen assumes these practices and class distinctions are common knowledge, but to me, they are quite foreign.

However, due to the author’s delightful writing style, colorful characters, and intriguing setting, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and plan to add Sense and Sensibility to my reading list. So include me on the long list of Jane Austen fans. I am now a “Janeite.”

"I went to Manderley again…"

I first read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier in the eighth grade and loved it for its romance, but more for its darkness and mystery. Now, about forty-six (yikes) years later, I loved it again, but obviously with a new view.

This English romantic suspense written in the 1930s features a protagonist whose first name is never revealed. Du Maurier later stated she just couldn’t think of one. However, the very young lady’s companion falls into company with the older, more cultured Maximillian de Winter, master of the country estate, Manderley. The two meet in the south of France where he is recovering from the tragic death of his wife, Rebecca.

They fall in love, marry, and return to the beautiful, yet oppressive manor house. There, when compared to the fabulous Rebecca, the new Mrs. de Winter falls painfully short in the eyes of the servants, friends, and family of her new husband. She finds the memory of her “perfect” predecessor an overwhelming obstacle to happiness. And then things go bad.

The second Mrs. de Winter is meek, unsure, and eager to please–a good description of my eighth-grade self. She is not beautiful or classy like Rebecca had been; it seems she has little fashion sense or charm of any kind. Again, a good description of me at thirteen. I could feel her humiliation at each faux pas and snide remark about her hair, her skirts, even her reticence to offer opinions.

Now, closing in on sixty, I read the book from my post-menopausal perch and mentally urged the character to speak up, ask questions, talk to the more friendly characters, wishing on her a confidence I only learned over years. Yet, I fully empathized with the girl and pulled for her every step of the way.

Another difference is the lifetime of experiences that helped me comprehend the complications and deep personal risks for the players. My goofy little grade-eight self had no reference for such emotions–except fear and humiliation. But the story grabbed both “me’s” with equal passion.

Rebecca, it seems, has the greatest trait of a classic story: it holds up over decades. Here is a book I loved as much at thirteen as fifty-nine, albeit for different reasons. It has a depth that appeals to many aspects of the reader and never disappoints. I cannot recommend this book more strongly.

"Timshel"

After finishing John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I have two thoughts: (1) I’m going to have to reread this book, and (2) I should have read it years ago.

Steinbeck uses his own family history to intermingle the stories of two families and three generations to probe the story of Cain and Abel of the Biblical book of Genesis. This is an exploration of good and evil, and sibling rivalry. Half-brothers Adam and Charles Trask struggle to win their dishonest, but formidable father’s affection and respect. Adam marries near-sociopath Cathy Ames, who also sleeps with brother Charles. They have twin sons, Aron and Caleb. Both sets of brothers are prototypes for Abel and Cain.

The most compelling theme of the book, however, is the very nature of our purpose here as people. Samuel Hamilton (Steinbeck’s grandfather), Adam Trask, and his servant, Chinese-American Lee, discuss the different translations of the Genesis story.

“Don’t you see?” he [Lee] cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin [do thou], and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel–‘Thou mayest’–that gives a choice. It may be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open.”

The concept of choice, free will, is central to the point of this story. We are not governed by our circumstance of birth and heritage. We may choose. The very idea frees the characters and can free the reader as well.

The philosophies in this book are deep and so I will need to reread. There are so many subtleties, I know I did not catch all in this first reading and I will read this book again, possibly many times. I give East of Eden the highest recommendation.