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Book Review: Call of the Wild by Jack London

the call of the wildThe Call of the Wild by Jack London

Goodreads Description: First published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is regarded as Jack London’s masterpiece. Based on London’s experiences as a gold prospector in the Canadian wilderness and his ideas about nature and the struggle for existence, The Call of the Wild is a tale about unbreakable spirit and the fight for survival in the frozen Alaskan Klondike.

Book Description: “There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” THE CALL OF THE WILD is a novel by American author Jack London published in 1903. The story is set in the Yukon during the 19th-century Klondike Gold Rush—a period when strong sled dogs were in high demand. The novel’s central character is a dog named Buck, a domesticated dog living at a ranch in California as the story opens. Stolen from his home and sold into the brutal existence of an Alaskan sled dog, he reverts to atavistic traits. Buck is forced to adjust and survive cruel treatments, fight to dominate other dogs, and survive in a harsh climate. Eventually he sheds the veneer of civilization, relying on primordial instincts through lessons he learns, to emerge as a leader in the wild.

My Review:

The novel opens with the following epigraph:

“Old longings nomadic leap,

Chafing at custom’s chain;

Again from its brumal sleep

Wakens the ferine strain.”

After some digging, I discovered it was taken from the poem Atavism by John Myers O’Hara. For those that may not know (I didn’t), atavism means to revert to characteristics typical of an ancestral form.

The reader is given many clues (the title of the book, the epigraph, the name of the poem) as to the theme of the novel, and it’s one we can relate to. We all have a calling inside us, something that awakens the soul, and makes us feel alive.

The epigraph is followed by the sentence:

“Buck did not read the newspapers or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.”

We immediately know the protagonist will go on a journey, literally and figuratively, that will cause him to return to the wild.

At the beginning of the book, Buck is enjoying a comfortable life with a wealthy family. He could easily have “lived the life of a sated aristocrat,” but “saved himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog”—a hint at the wild streak within. He was subservient to none. “And over this great demesne Buck ruled…king over all creeping, crawling, flying things of Judge Miller’s place, humans included.” While there are only a few pages dedicated to his relationship with the Miller family, you get the sense his attachment is superficial, his loyalty changeable based on those who care for him.

As the opening sentence suggests, “trouble is brewing” and Buck is plucked from a life of luxury and forced to work as a sled dog, suffering and witnessing cruelty from man and beast. He is no longer master of all, but must become subservient simply to survive. He eventually rises as the leader of the pack but still suffers man’s cruelty. He is rescued by a man and finally learns true love and loyalty. Eventually he learns to awaken the “ferine strain” and emerges as king of the beasts once again, but this time in the wild instead of civilization.

I liked this book better than I expected to. I wasn’t sure I would be able to connect with a dog as the main protagonist. Not that I don’t love dogs. I have two loyal companions sitting at my feet that would prove otherwise. I just wasn’t sure how genuine the character would feel to me. Would the main character, Buck, create the emotional attachment needed to propel me, the reader, through an entire novel? Surprisingly, he did and I even felt my eyes sting a little at the end.

4 out of 5 stars

 

I’ve been reading, or rereading, books on the Modern Library’s Top 100 list to see what I could learn from these highly praised works. The Call of the Wild is # 88 on the list. So what did I learn from reading this book? Here are a few writing “rules” that came to mind:

·         State the theme.

Masterfully done in the title, the epigraph, and the title of the poem the epigraph is quoted from.

·         Establish normal before you violate normal.

Buck was living an idyllic existence where he was doted on as the beloved pet of a wealthy family before he was plucked from his home and sold into a world of servitude and cruelty where he had to struggle to survive.  

·         Don’t use phonetics to emphasize dialogue.

At first I had difficulty reading the phonetic spelling of the dialogue given to the book’s human characters, but I adjusted to it fairly quickly. It provided a sharp contrast between the civilized world Buck had been stolen from and the savagery of the cruel world in which he had been placed.

·         The protagonist should be transformed over the course of the story (character arc).

London sends Buck on quite a journey, physically and emotionally, and he proves you can have a character arc when the main protagonist is an animal.

·         The final image should be the opposite of the opening image to show how much has changed.

The opening scene describes one where Buck is the master of his domain, a civilized animal among civilized people. The closing scene shows Buck as master once again but in a very different environment.  

 

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Book Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

brave new worldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley

Goodreads Description: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s prophetic novel of natural man in an unnatural world, is one of the twentieth century’s most profound and terrifying evocations of the future. This story of life in a streamlined Eden describes a civilization in which contemporary concepts of freedom and morality have become obsolete.

Modern Library Top 100 Rank: 5

My Review:

The book, written in 1931, is incredibly prophetic beginning with its description of human life created in a lab. No doubt it had seemed like a radical idea at the time, but less than fifty years later the first human would be conceived in a test tube within a sterile environment similar to one Huxley described. It’s a process known as IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), and it has fulfilled the dreams of many couples who couldn’t conceive naturally. With IVF, conception occurs outside the womb with the fertilized egg being returned to the mother’s uterus to develop as nature intended. I applaud science for finding a way to bring hope to couples who have had trouble conceiving, but I hope I don’t live to see a world where a BOKANOVSKY type process comes to fruition. Huxley’s novel takes the process to a terrifying level with its Hatchery and Conditioning center.

First Sentence: “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.”

The centre is a place where humans are artificially conceived and bottled in jars during gestation. Many are preselected at conception for a lower class, a process known as “bokanovskification”, where they are treated like a commodity and mass-produced in an assembly line of sorts, subjected to substandard environmental conditions at the embryonic stage to cause arrested development in mental and physical acuity, and conditioned via Pavlovian methods after “birth” to be suited and satisfied with their position in life.

Because of this, the family structure no longer exists. “Parent” is a foreign concept along with all the emotional ties of that familial bond. If you are a parent, think of the first time you heard your child say “Mama” or “Dada.” For me, it is one of the most beautiful words in the human language because of the depth of emotion and protective instinct that is tied to it. It stirs up feelings in me that I cannot even begin to put into words.

By artificially controlling the natural development of humans, we lose everything that makes each of us unique and suppress the potential for great ideas and innovation. By disallowing natural bonds to form like parent/child, husband/wife, we destroy the concepts of unconditional love, loyalty, and devotion.  

In the book, the leaders of society have created a utopia where everyone is content. A person’s purpose is manufactured through conditioning for the benefit of the community. Even a person’s emotions can be manufactured by popping a pill called Soma if they are depressed or having a VPS (Violent Passion Surrogate) treatment to stimulate the adrenals.

“What you need,” the Savage went on, “is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.

Exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death and danger, even for an eggshell. Isn’t there something in that?” he asked, looking up at Mustapha Mond. “Quite apart from God—though of course God would be a reason for it. Isn’t there something in living dangerously?”

“There’s a great deal in it,” the Controller replied. “Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time.”

“What?” questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.

“It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory.”

“V.P.S.?”

“Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

It’s frightening how prophetic this book is when you think about it. Don’t think so? Let’s name a few mood altering drugs on the market today: Zoloft, Xanax, and Prozac. They’re really not too different from Soma, are they? I haven’t taken any of them, but I’ve heard acquaintances gush about how wonderful they are because they don’t worry about anything. They are just so happy, albeit a “manufactured” happy. What about adrenal stimulation? Video games, anyone? Especially combat games where the threat of death is simulated. The same can be said of horror or action movies.

These things may seem innocuous. After all, antidepressants aid people suffering from depression, video games improve hand-eye coordination, reaction time and decision-making, and movies create empathy; but when we partake in such large doses and they prevent us from dealing with reality, it becomes an issue.  

Yes, Huxley’s Brave New World is frightening indeed, and when I think of the state of morality as displayed by many celebrities, people on reality TV, and society in general, I wonder how far we are from it, really.

4 of 5 stars

Book Review: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

of mice and menOf Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Back Cover Blurb: They are an unlikely pair: George is “small and quick and dark of face”; Lennie, a man of tremendous size, has the mind of a young child. Yet they have formed a “family,” clinging together in the face of loneliness and alienation.

Laborers in California’s dusty vegetable fields, they hustle work when they can, living a hand-to-mouth existence. For George and Lennie have a plan: to own an acre of land and a shack they can call their own. When they land jobs on a ranch in the Salinas Valley, the fulfillment of their dream seems to be within their grasp. But even George cannot guard Lennie from the provocations of a flirtatious woman, nor predict the consequences of Lennie’s unswerving obedience to the things George taught him.

Goodreads Description: Of Mice and Men takes us into the lives of George and Lennie, two farm workers set out to find their way to a new life. In true Steinbeck form, this short novel explores both loyalty and the transient nature of mankind.

I hadn’t read this book since high school. I won’t say exactly how long ago that was, but it’s been a while. I read it again in April 2013, armed with new knowledge of writing rules, to see if I could understand what makes this book a classic.

What writing rules came to mind during my second read of this book?

 Don’t phoneticize regional or cultural dialects. And yet, I can’t imagine reading this without the phonetic dialogue. “We’re going to live off of the fat of the land, George,” doesn’t have the same effect as: “We’re gonna live offa the fatta the lan’, George.” It not only shows that Lennie is mentally challenged, but I can even hear the innocence, in his voice.

I thought the dialogue was brilliant. There was so much lying under the surface of what was spoken. Candy, the elderly, crippled handyman on the farm where Lennie and George work had this to say of his aging, crippled, sheep herding dog:

I ought to of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t ought to of let no stranger shoot my dog.

After my second read, I still agree with its ranking as a classic. What makes it so? A classic is defined as something that retains its worth over time, and where literature is concerned, a classic addresses a theme of timeless quality. The themes of friendship, loneliness, and the pursuit of a dream are universal and will resonate with readers.

We all dream of our own little slice of heaven on earth, and whether that is a few acres of land or a little reading nook matters not, as long as it’s a place where the harsh realities of a cruel world cannot reach.

This is a heart-wrenching story of an unlikely friendship between a pair of migrant farm workers. George and Lennie are physical and intellectual opposites, but incredibly loyal to each other.  Lennie is a contradiction beginning with his last name: Small. Physically, he is anything but small, but mentally he is limited. He has the mind of a young child, and like a young child he has an overabundance of innocence and loyalty. George is the brains of the duo, and although he is much smaller in stature he is the protector. He makes it his mission to buy a farm where the two of them can live, independent of the outside world and unexposed to its merciless nature.

The title of the book is derived from the poem To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough written by Robert Burns in 1786. It’s an apology to the mouse for destroying her home. In relation to Steinbeck’s book, two stanzas of the poem stand out in particular.

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee
startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.

Although George and Lennie are unlikely companions, opposites in almost every aspect, they share this dream of owning their own land. It is the possibility of achieving that dream that bonds them together, but even the best laid plans often go awry.

 4 of 5 stars

Book Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsBook Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Published: 1929

Modern Library Ranking: 74

Book Description: The best American novel to emerge from World War I, A Farewell to Arms is the unforgettable story of an American ambulance driver on the Italian front and his passion for a beautiful English nurse. Hemingway’s frank portrayal of the love between Lieutenant Henry and Catherine Barkley, caught in the inexorable sweep of war, glows with an intensity unrivaled in modern literature, while his description of the German attack on Caporetto—of lines of fired men marching in the rain, hungry, weary, and demoralized—is one of the greatest moments in literary history. A story of love and pain, of loyalty and desertion, A Farewell to Arms, written when he was thirty years old, represents a new romanticism for Hemingway.

Okay, that wasn’t exactly my reaction to the ending of the book, but when I saw this scene in the movie, Silver Linings Playbook, I had to laugh. I could relate to his reaction, and although I didn’t break any windows or utter any profanities (okay maybe one or two), I do believe I tossed the book aside. I don’t need a happily ever after to enjoy a book, but this is what the author makes you crave while you’re experiencing an otherwise hopeless world, where war and death are commonplace. If you’re looking for a happy ending, you won’t get that from Hemingway. His books depict the real rather than the ideal. War is not glamorous. Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Death is inevitable. Often we read to escape that reality, and that’s where the disappointment comes from. We want to believe that it was all worth it somehow.

I’ve been reading, or rereading, books on the Modern Library Top 100 list to see what I could learn from these highly praised works. What did I learn from reading this book? Here are a few writing “rules” that came to mind:

  • Hook the reader with the first line.

1st sentence: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.”

No, it’s not particularly engaging, but I kept reading as the next rule came to mind.

  • Avoid slow beginnings. Starting a book with too much pedestrian detail will lose the reader.

On the surface, the beginning appeared quite pedestrian, and it seemed so until I finished the book. If you know anything about Hemingway’s style, much of the meaning of what he writes lies beneath the surface. I reread the opening paragraph, and it took on a different meaning for me.

It describes a scene where troops are marching down a road. The only evidence that remains after they have passed is the dust that powders the leaves and trunks of the trees. Like the movement of the troops on the dusty road, our lives are temporary, and after we pass, the only thing that remains is the dust we leave behind; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I’m not sure if this is the meaning Hemingway intended to convey but this is how I view it. The opening paragraph is hauntingly poetic to me now. Here is the rest of it:

“In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

  • Use inconspicuous dialogue tags like “said” and “asked” only when necessary.

I don’t recall seeing any dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked,” and for the most part, Hemingway avoided dialogue tags altogether. It was confusing, at times, to determine who was speaking and I had to reread a passage.

  • Don’t use phonetic spelling to convey racial or cultural dialects. The oddly spelled words can be distracting to the reader.

The skill with which Hemingway uses the context of speech, a peculiar turn of phrase, those idioms indicative of a particular culture, allows the reader to hear the words as if they were spelled phonetically. As I stated above, he frequently omits dialogue tags, but his use of dialogue, for the most part, makes it unnecessary. One can learn a lot from studying Hemingway’s use of dialogue.

  • Create characters that are likable. The protagonist is a character the reader should empathize with. The emotional attachment is what keeps the reader interested in the story.

Initially, I viewed the main character, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, as a self-absorbed womanizer. What led me to these initial reactions? Here is what he thought about Catherine:

“I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.” Then, in this same scene he tells her, “But I do love you.”

What a snake. I didn’t feel sorry for Catherine, though. She was a pathetic character who fawned over Frederic and didn’t have a life or thought of her own. She seemed desperate for someone to love and would become whatever he wanted.

“There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.”

“You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got.”

I wanted to puke. I had a hard time empathizing with these characters. But, as usual with Hemingway, all is not what it seems. Frederic is an ambulance driver who risks his life to help the wounded. Pretty noble, eh? He actually does fall in love with Catherine and the way I initially viewed him changed. He was no longer a player in those early scenes, but someone who wanted to remain numb, unfeeling among the atrocities of war, suppressing his emotions with alcohol and meaningless sex.

As for Catherine, her actions contradicted her words. She did have a mind of her own. She left the safety of her home country to aid wounded soldiers at the front. She did this to honor her fiance who was killed in the war. She was independent and courageous. Like Frederic, she put herself in harm’s way for the welfare of others. I no longer viewed her as a pathetic character but as someone who was desperately trying to deal with grief.

Although I believe I came to understand their actions, I never developed a deep emotional attachment for the characters.

My favorite quotes both appear on page 249:

“I know the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started.”

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

This seems to be describing the contrast between dreams and reality. What are the things we dream of? Peace, security, love? Does our world allow those things to exist? Frederic and Catherine find solace in each other’s arms, but can love exist among the atrocities of war? Maybe the answer lies in the book’s title.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars