The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The-Call-of-The-WildBuck is snatched away from his easy life on a California ranch and thrown with little training or ceremony into the brutal life of a sled dog in the Canadian north. Here, he must learn to protect himself from cruel treatment by both men and other dogs, as he slowly ‘remembers’ his  ancestry as a wild beast. It is also here, in this harsh landscape, that he learns to love.

Before I write anything else, I need to say: I did not know this book was about a dog. That makes me sound so stupid. I mean, I knew there was a dog. There is a dog on the cover, even. I guess I just thought it was about a person and their dog. I was confused for the first few pages, then caught on to the fact that Buck was not human.

Aside from reading Black Beauty as a girl (and rereading it, multiple times) I generally don’t do books about animals. They just don’t appeal to me. I could possibly be tempted by a cat book, but even that sounds too cliché. I like my books to be about people, and more often than not, fictional people.

That now out of the way, I have to say I really enjoyed the book, despite and possibly more-so because of its perspective. This story could not have been told with a human protagonist. This is the other side of the North, and what humans have done there. Buck was there only to work and stay alive. He had no desire for gold or wealth, no longing for the comforts of the south. Setting the story around Buck allows the reader to see the north without human ambition getting in the way.

It was a short book, and an easy read. Still, it was beautiful. Poetic, even. Which was fabulous for a winter weekend where I was mostly confined to my couch with a head-cold.

But now I can’t help but think a little bit more would have been nice. More context. Where did the natives come from, and why did they attack three presumably innocent travellers? Why were the dogs traded so often – was this common practice, or bad luck? Plus numerous other small questions that came up while I was reading. Of course, the point may well have been that Buck did not know the context, and so the reader will not either?

A ‘dog-person’ may have a better perspective on this, but while I found Buck’s transformation fascinating, and hauntingly beautiful, I did not completely buy it. From content estate pet sleeping by the fire to wild dog roaming with the wolves in the span of a few years? Seems unlikely… but damn it makes a great story.

Paperback: 64 pages
Publisher: Dover Publications; First Edition edition (July 1, 1990)
ISBN-10: 0486264726
ISBN-13: 978-0486264721

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Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Working as a governess to teach and raise the spoiled rich children of England’s upper class, Agnes Grey discovers what it means to be invisible. Unappreciated and unacknowledged by those she works for and among, she struggles to hold onto her morals and her sense of self.

Her father’s dreams and impractical business plans slowly lead her family to financial ruin, so at the age of nineteen, Agnes begs to be allowed to take a position as a governess and earn her own keep. Filled with dreams of inspiring young minds and earning the love and devotion of the children entrusted to her, she soon discovers that her lack of social status leads to a lonely and empty life among the higher class families who employ her.

The novel is highly autobiographical, and at least one incident was later admitted by Charlotte Brontë as taken directly from Anne’s experiences as a governess.

As a huge fan of the work of the other Brontë sisters, most notably Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I had hoped another Brontë novel would prove as darkly gothic as the others – in this I was disappointed. Had I done any advance research, I may have discovered that Agnes Grey was described by the critic George Moore as having “all the qualities of Jane Austen.” I am not an Austen fan. I could have been warned.

While there is nothing specifically wrong with Agnes Grey, it is a classic example of the moralising Victorian novel, and as such while well written and interesting (enough that I read it on one sitting), it was not particularly exciting (I read it while flying, and had nothing else to distract me).

Paperback: 248 pages

First Published: Thomas Cautlby Newby, December 1847

Current Edition: Oxford University Press, USA

ISBN-10: 0192834789

ISBN-13: 978-0192834782


Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“There she blows!–there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”

When I added Moby Dick to my 2011 reading list, I had no idea just how much work it would be to read. And it really did feel like work. While a fascinating book, it is not an easy read. The language is heavy. The imagery is layered. The detail and description lead to information overload.

But it is a beautiful novel. And that is despite the fact that the whole goal of the main characters is to hunt down and kill a whale, which is not exactly endearing.

Moby Dick is narrated by the sailor Ishmael, on his first whaling voyage. He sails aboard the Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. It quickly becomes clear that there is something not altogether right about Ahab. He is scarcely seen by the crew, and not at all before they leave port. He is gruff and reclusive. He wears an ivory leg to replace the limb that was bitten off when he was attacked by the ferocious white sperm whale, Moby Dick. Ahab’s voyage is funded under the pretence of being a whaling voyage, but he soon reveals his real plan: to hunt down and kill Moby Dick, and have his revenge.

But if this was really just a book about killing a whale, I would never have read it. It was so much more. In writing Moby Dick, Melville uses an odd mix of  metaphor, symbolism, stage directions, soliloquies and more to tell the story, while examining concepts of good and evil, class, social status, race and sexuality (among other references I probably missed). This was a book you had to read slowly to really see what he was trying to say, and you would have to read it numerous times to get all that you could out of it. I am not sure I have that in me.

Favourite chapters/moments include: Ishmael meeting and sharing a bed with Queequeg; Ahab making the sailors swear an oath to kill the whale; the soliloquies of Ahab, Starbuck and Stubb, following the oath; “The Whiteness of the Whale” – beautiful yet ominous; the personal stories of the carpenter and the blackmith; and of course the dramatic ending.

Moby Dick was an amazing read, and an intense and thrilling story. Well worth the investment of time if you are feeling ambitious.

The novel is full of famous and not so famous quotes, many of which honestly left me breathless. I would love to list them all here for you, but will leave you with one:

“Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.”

Paperback: 656 pages

Publisher: Oxford University Press

First Published: 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers, London

ISBN-10: 9780199535729

ISBN-13: 978-0199535729