One-Minute Book Reviews

March 29, 2012

‘The Call of the Wild’ / A Parable for an Uncivilized Age

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 am
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An abducted dog faces cruel masters and canine rivals during the Klondike Gold Rush

The Call of the Wild. By Jack London. Library of America, 96 pp., $8.50, paperback. Available in many other editions.

By Janice Harayda

Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild more than a century before Staff Sergeant Robert Bales walked away from his combat outpost in Kandahar province and, the Army says, shot to death 16 Afghan civilians. But his classic novel deals with a question often asked about that well-liked former linebacker who stands accused of slaughtering innocents: What turns a product of civilized society into a killer?

London’s answer is neither “nature” or “nurture” but “both,” a prescient anticipation of the modern scientific view that environmental factors switch genes on or off. He develops his theme in an adventure story told mainly from the point of view of Buck, a half-collie, half-Saint Bernard mix, who has spent the first four years of his life as the “unduly civilized” pet of a California judge. Then a groundskeeper kidnaps him and sells him to the first of a series of cruel owners, who soon attach him to sled-dog teams during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. In order to survive, Buck must shed more of his civilized instincts with each clash with his brutal masters and with rival dogs who turn savage when starved, beaten, and forced to haul crushing loads in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero. By time Buck finds an owner who treats him kindly, the question is: At what point does “the call of the wild” become irreversible, or at least irresistible?

These fictional circumstances are far different those of a sergeant accused of killing 16 civilians on his fourth deployment in a war zone: a man who reportedly had suffered a head injury, lost part of a foot, picked up the bodies of dead Iraqis, seen a comrade’s leg blown off, and faced eviction from his home in Seattle. But Robert Bales’s life and emotional arc have enough parallels with Buck’s that teachers might compare them with profit in junior high or high school classrooms.

As E.L. Doctorow notes in his introduction, The Call of the Wild is a “mordant parable of the thinness of civilization.” It shows how a lifetime of restraints can fall away when circumstances are extreme, and it retains its appeal in part because allows us to see that shedding of civilization at two removes: in the life of a dog and in the vast Yukon wilderness that few of us will ever see. The remoteness of the setting invests The Call of the Wild with a mythic allure. And London shows how a good novelist can lend credibility to the kind of transformations that, when described in newspapers, often defy belief.

Best line: “It was beautiful spring weather, but neither dogs nor humans were aware of it. Each day the sun rose earlier and set later. It was dawn by three in the morning, and the twilight lingered till nine at night. The whole long day was a blaze of sunshine. The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life. This murmur arose from all the land, fraught with the joy of living.”

Worst line: London’s rendering of the speech of “a French-Canadian half-breed”: “ ‘Tree vair’ good dogs,’ François told Perrault. ‘Dat Buck, heem pool lak hell. I tich heem queek as anyt’ing.’”

Published: 1903 (Macmillan first edition), 1990 (the Library of America stand-alone edition that I read). Many editions exist.

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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 21, 2012

What I’m Reading … Jack London’s ‘The Call of the Wild’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am
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The latest in a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review

What I’m reading: The Call of the Wild (Library of America, 96 pp., $8.50, paperback), with an introduction by E.L. Doctorow.

What it is: A classic adventure novel about Buck, a dog kidnapped from his California owner and forced to endure savage hardships during the Klondike gold rush of 1897. The story of Buck’s transformation in the wild is, as the novelist E.L. Doctorow says in his introduction, a “mordant parable of the thinness of civilization.”

Why I’m reading it: For a book club. I’m rereading The Call of the Wild for the first time in more than a decade.

Quote from the book: “One night he sprang from sleep with a start, eager-eyed, nostrils quivering and scenting, his mane bristling in recurrent waves. From the forest came the call (or one note of it, for the call was many noted), distinct and definite as never before, — a long-drawn howl, like, yet unlike, any noise made by a husky dog. And he knew it, in the old familiar way, as a sound heard before.”

Published: 1903 (Macmillan first edition), 1990 (the Library of America stand-alone edition I’m reading). Many good editions exist.

Probability that I will review the book: High

Furthermore: My edition calls The Call of the Wild “perhaps the best novel ever written about animals” on its back cover. Forgotten that whales are mammals, eh, Library of America?

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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June 1, 2009

A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #1 – Eudora Welty’s Comic Novella, ‘The Ponder Heart’

A kind-hearted uncle is put on trial for murder in a comic novella that includes some of the most entertaining courtroom scenes in American literature

The Ponder Heart. By Eudora Welty. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 168 pp., $12, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Jane Austen told a would-be novelist that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” And much of her comedy turns on the arrival of an outsider in such a group – most famously, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s entrance into the world of the Bennets, Bingleys and Lucases in Pride and Prejudice.

In that sense, The Ponder Heart is Eudora Welty’s most Austenian book. The wonderfully named Ponders and Clanahans and Sistrunks have held sway in Clay, Mississippi, for generations. Then a newcomer turns up: 17-year-old Bonnie Dee Peacock, who is “no bigger than a minute” and promptly marries Uncle Daniel Ponder, a rich, kind and mentally slow man whose greatest happiness lies in giving things away. When Bonnie departs as suddenly as she arrived, Uncle Daniel finds himself on trial for murder in one of the most entertaining courtroom dramas in American literature.

First published in The New Yorker in 1953, The Ponder Heart is a light-hearted and at times farcical social comedy that takes the form of a monologue by the endearingly self-assured Edna Earle Ponder, the proprietor of the faded Beulah Hotel in Clay, Mississippi. Edna says, “It’s always taken a lot out of me, being smart,” and the appeal of her tale lies partly in her astute, matter-of-fact send-ups of her fellow Mississippians.

“The Peacocks are the kind of people keep the mirror outside on the front porch, and go out and pick railroad lilies to bring inside the house, and wave at trains till the day die,” Edna says.

Everything about that sentence is perfect: its deadpan wit, its vivid images, its distinctive syntax (such as the dropping of the “who” from the phrase, “the kind of people keep”). And it suggests why many critics believe that Welty’s superb ear for the speech of many Southern groups – men and women, blacks and whites, city and country folk – reaches a high point in The Ponder Heart.

But Welty never makes dialect an end in itself, as so many novelists do. She always uses it to make a larger point that is as disarmingly frank and surprising as her language. Edna Earle suggests one of the themes of The Ponder Heart explaining why Uncle Daniel keeps finding reason come into town from the big Ponder house out in the country. “There’s something that’s better to have than love,” she says, “and if you want me to, I’ll tell you what it is – that’s company.”

This is the first in a series of daily posts about Southern literature. Tomorrow: Willie Morris’s memoir of his Southern boyhood, North Toward Home.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 13, 2008

Ghosts of Venice — Susan Hill’s Novella, ‘The Man in the Picture’

An 18th-century painting of masked revelers at the Grand Canal has sinister properties

The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story. By Susan Hill. Overlook, 145 pp., $15.

By Janice Harayda

A Halloween-costume superstore has opened in my town and raised the frightening possibility that I will soon be the only person on the streets not dressed like Bigfoot or a tavern wench. I will defend to the death anyone’s sartorial-first-amendment right to don a Borat Lycra Mankini or a Sexy Ms. Mental Patient outfit (“includes shirt with vinyl restraints”).

But if you’re looking for another way to spend Halloween, why not read a ghost story? You might start with this intelligent new novella by the English author Susan Hill.

The Man in the Picture lacks the psychological complexity of Patrick McGrath’s neo-Gothic novels and Alison Lurie’s underrated short story collection, Women and Ghosts. But Hill’s book works on its own terms, which are those of a well-crafted Victorian ghost story. The opening lines set the tone:

“The story was told to me by my old tutor, Theo Parmitter, as we sat beside the fire in his college rooms one bitterly cold January night. There were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by the servant in huge brass scuttles. I had traveled down from London to see my old friend, who was by then well into his eighties …”

The tale involves a painting that Theo bought at auction as a young man, an untitled 18th-century work showing masked revelers at a carnival in Venice. From several narrators we learn that that the picture has a chimerical effect: New people seem to keep appearing in it. The meaning of the changes begins to emerge when a countess summons Theo to her Yorkshire estate and links the painting to acts of sexual jealousy and revenge, an ill-fated honeymoon in Venice and the violent deaths of her husband and son. Lady Hawdon warns Theo that for his own good, he must sell her the painting. He doesn’t sell. Alas, poor Theo!

True to the conventions of Gothic novels, The Man in the Picture has shadowy hallways, long-buried secrets and odd noises in the night. It also includes a genteel psychopath whose mental instability appears contagious. Characters tend to stay conveniently out of range of pragmatists who could shout at crucial moments, “No! No! Don’t go into that empty room!”

By modern standards, much of the plot is no more rational than the idea that a priceless garnet would end up inside a Christmas goose in the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” And it isn’t supposed to meet contemporary tests of plausibility. Like dressing up as tavern wench, it’s unabashed retro escapism, well suited to a month when you may hear mysterious sounds as you stumble through the darkened rooms of a haunted house.

Best line: “The faces of the revelers were many of them the classic Venetian, with prominent noses, the same faces that could be seen on Magi and angels, saints and popes, in the great paintings that filled Venice’s churches.”

Worst line: “She was extremely old, with the pale-parchment textured skin that goes with great age, a skin like the paper petals of dried Honesty.” The similie reaches for a higher tone than the rest of the book.

Recommendation? In the U.S. ghost stories have been so thoroughly absorbed into the horror-novel genre that, except in children’s fiction, few writers attempt them and readers tend to associate them with lumbering behemoths like Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. The Man in the Picture gives Americans a chance to rediscover the appeal of these stories in a purer and in some ways more elegant form.

Because of its conversational tone and multiple narrators, this is also good book to read aloud, which you could probably do in less than two and a half hours. Book clubs might consider having members take turns reading this one aloud at a meeting instead of reading it in advance.

Published: October 2008 www.susan-hill.com/

Second opinion: Salley Vickers observed perceptively the Independent: “As with many successful ghost stories – The Turn of the Screw comes to mind – the form of the book is a re-telling; indeed, a series of re-tellings. Hill knows that the sinister is enhanced by obliqueness. By giving us a chain of raconteurs, she skilfully conveys the ambience in which the uncanny survives via rumour and report.”

Furthermore: Hill also wrote two mystery novels about Chief Inspector Simon Serailler and The Woman in Black www.thewomaninblack.com/, the theatrical version of which opened in 1989 in London’s West End and is one of its longest-running shows.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 18, 2007

Why Does ‘A Christmas Carol’ Work So Well As a Holiday Story? Quote of the Day (Jane Smiley)

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — a sentimental novella about the redemption of a miser — could easily have turned to drivel. Why didn’t it? Here’s an answer from the novelist Jane Smiley:

A Christmas Carol, like Martin Chuzzlewit, concerns itself with the social ramifications of selfishness, but the characters of young Martin and old Martin are combined in that of Ebenezer Scrooge, and his moral journey, which takes place in three acts in one night, has the force of a revelation rather than the tedium of a lengthy trek by ox-drawn wagon. Some of the narrative had its origins in one of Dickens’s own vivid dreams, and surely the idea of of using dreams as a structural device had its origins there as well …

“But what makes A Christmas Carol work — what makes it so appealing a novella that William Makepeace Thackeray, Dickens’s most self-conscious literary rival, called it ‘a national benefit’ — is the lightness of Dickens’s touch. Instead of hammering his points home, as he does in Martin Chuzzlewit, he is content (or more content) to let his images speak for themselves.”

Jane Smiley in Charles Dickens: A Penguin Life (Viking/Lipper, $19.95) www.penguinputnam.com. Smiley’s novels include A Thousand Acres www.randomhouse.com, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

For more on Dickens, visit the site for the Dickens Fellowship www.dickensfellowship.org, a 105-year-old organization based at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and world.

The “Christmas Carol” in the title of Dickens’s novella is “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” which mentioned in the story. To listen to it, click here http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/g/o/godrest.htm.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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