Day 762: The Call of the Wild

Cover for The Call of the WildThe Call of the Wild is no boys’ tale. It’s rough, embodying as it does Jack London’s ideas about the survival of the fittest. It is also London’s classic tale about the relationship between dog and man.

Buck is a large, pampered dog, the pet of a rich judge in California. But the Alaska gold rush is on, and all large dogs on the west coast are at risk. A gardener’s assistant with debts kidnaps Buck and sells him.

Buck is beaten with a club and then taken up to Alaska to work as a sled dog. But Buck never becomes submissive. Through intelligence, cunning, and brute strength he survives in brutal conditions. Eventually, he begins to feel the urge of his wild heritage.

Although London has the dog have fairly ridiculous “racial memories” of tree-living humans, they are probably about on par with what was believed at the time about evolution. London’s short novel is typical of the school of naturalism, which endeavoured to show the worst of reality. This is not really my favorite of my Classics Club list books so far.

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Day 761: The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live

Cover for The BirdAlthough I am interested in birds, I kept thinking while reading The Bird that science writer and zoologist Colin Tudge had not thought enough about who his audience was. The book is written in an accessible style for the general reader, but the level and amount of information is sometimes more suitable for a serious student.

For example, he spends several chapters on evolution in general, the evolution of birds, and the number of bird species. This information takes up the first 200 pages of the book, ending in a chapter of nearly 100 pages that describes each of the many species of bird. Who does he think is going to read and remember this? In particular, since most people have not even seen a tenth of these species, how can they visualize them from these descriptions? Pictures would be better, but all we get is an occasional line drawing.

Furthermore, he makes some notable mistakes in these first chapters. When he is discussing the evolution of bird species, he makes a comment referring to a figure. When I looked at the figure, I could find no correspondence between what he was saying about it and what it showed. Thinking that the reference was to a different figure, I looked at all of them, but still could not figure out what he was talking about. Later, in an even worse mistake, he refers to a figure that is not even in the book.

The second half of the book covers subjects such as what birds eat, where they live, how they mate, and what their familial and community relationships are. This is more interesting material, but it is still too exhaustive. We really probably don’t want to know the habits of every species of bird.

I also felt sometimes as if he gets too far off track in his musings. For example, in the chapter about the mind of the bird, he starts with a series of questions, and one of them is whether computers can think like humans. If there is some connection between that idea and the study of birds, he didn’t explain it well enough. It feels like a total nonsequitor, and this is not the only instance.

The final chapters are the most interesting. I enjoyed the descriptions of studies meant to demonstrate the intelligence of birds even though I had seen TV programs about most of the same studies. Mind, he doesn’t use the word “intelligence.” I do.

The book ends with a strong message about conservation that is probably the most important section.

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Day 760: The Z Murders

Cover for The Z MurdersIn general, serial killer mysteries are a more modern invention, but that does not mean none were written in the Golden Age. Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke is one example, although that killer’s victims are not as arbitrarily chosen as those in The Z Murders.

The main character of this novel is Richard Temperley, who has been traveling all night on a train when we meet him. His companion in the compartment, an elderly man, has been annoying him by snoring for hours. His train arrives at Euston Station at 5 AM, and he is perplexed about what to do with himself until a decent hour when the porter recommends the smoking room at a hotel across from the station.

When Richard arrives at the hotel, he is dismayed to pass his elderly railway companion in the hallway. In the room, he notices a beautiful young woman by the fire and thinks he will sit by the window. However, first he has an impulse to check on his baggage. When he returns, he finds the young woman emerging from the room looking upset. The elderly man is now sitting by the window, so he takes the woman’s seat by the fire. He is dozing off when he realizes the old man isn’t snoring. Sure enough, he is dead.

While Temperley is being quesioned by the police, he finds himself omitting information about the woman, particularly that he has found her purse in the seat of the chair he’s sitting on. The elderly man has been shot by a silenced pistol from the open window, the seat Temperley originally chose until he decided to check his baggage. A metal Z is next to the victim on the window sill.

Although Detective Inspector James doesn’t believe Temperley was involved in the crime, he thinks he knows more than he is saying. So, he puts a tail on Temperley. Temperley has found a card in the woman’s purse identifying her as Sylvia Wynne. He goes directly to her house and, finding no one there, is able to get in with a latch key. Richard finds a metal Z in the front hallway under the letter slot. A moment later, Sylvia comes through the window.

Of course, Richard has been smitten at first sight, but he is only able to speak with Sylvia briefly and give her his sister’s phone number before Inspector James is at the door. When he turns around, she is gone again.

link to NetgalleyThe resulting adventure/mystery involves a cross-country chase that reminds me a little bit of The 39 Steps without the espionage. The novel has a complicated plot, but the characters of Temperley and a cab driver named Diggs are nicely drawn. Although Sylvia is pretty much reduced to a damsel in distress, of the Golden Age mysteries I’ve been reading lately, I think I like Farjeon best.

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Classics Club Spin #10!

Cover for The Remains of the DayJust announced was the first Classics Club Spin since April. For the spin, we pick 20 entries from our Classics Club list, and then the Classics Club picks a number. We read the book corresponding to that number and post a review on October 23.

Unfortunately, since I always enjoy the spin, this may be the last in which I can participate with my current list, because I have so diligently read my classics that even though I have more than 20 still on my list, that is only because I have read them but not yet posted my reviews. I have exactly 20 unread books left, so I will be short for the next spin. If I want to participate, I will have to leave off some numbers and hope they’re not picked, or post the same books twice, or something. Any suggestions? I don’t want to change my list until I finish it.

Here is my list for Spin #10! My last 20 books! (My goal was to read all 50 by February 13, 2019. I think I’m going to make it.)

  1. The Vicar of Wakefield
  2. Henry VI Pt. II
  3. Night
  4. A Wreath of Roses
  5. Selected Poems by Robert Frost
  6. The Idiot
  7. Ada
  8. That Lady
  9. Beloved
  10. The Remains of the Day
  11. The True Heart
  12. The Beggar Maid
  13. Troy Chimneys
  14. Red Pottage
  15. Rebecca
  16. The Moonstone
  17. Far From the Madding Crowd
  18. Vanity Fair
  19. Bleak House
  20. Henry VI Pt III (I hope they don’t pick this number, because if they do, I’ll have to read Henry VI Pt II, too!)

Update: The selected number was #5, aargh!

Day 759: We Are Not Ourselves

Cover for We Are Not OurselvesEileen Tumulty has had a tough youth and adolescence with her Irish immigrant family struggling with alcoholism. For most of her school years she’s had to keep the house and take care of her drunken mother. So, when she meets Ed Leary, a young scientist who holds the promise of getting out of Queens, she marries him.

In some ways, they are a mismatch even though they love each other. Eileen is a practical woman, ambitious for a well-to-do life. Ed cares about integrity, his teaching, and his research. When Eileen buys him an expensive gold watch for a wedding present, one she cannot return, he refuses to wear it even after she replaces the gold wristband with a leather one. He teaches and has a lab at Bronx College. Several times he is offered jobs at more prestigious schools that he turns down. He also turns down an offer to be head of his department.

After a while, Eileen becomes exasperated at their lack of upward mobility. They have bought the three-family house in which they rented an apartment, but they still live in the same Bronx neighborhood they moved to when they were married. However, after their son Connell is born, Eileen settles her attention on him for awhile and also continues her nursing career.

Eventually, a shadow falls over the lives of the Learys. I don’t want to tell what it is, because it happens well into the novel. Until it happens, I sometimes wondered where the novel was going but eventually realized it is an honest, unflinching look at the pressures on a small family of a tremendous burden.

The novel is told mostly from the point of view of Eileen, a strong, independent woman with a will to succeed. Because of her upbringing, she has problems with showing affection and being open. Ed is warmer and more affectionate to Connell. Connell is slow to mature but eventually learns to accept responsibility for his actions.

I felt for a long time some distance from these characters, but the sheer weight of everything we learn about them eventually breaks through this barrier. The result is a touching and affecting story about love’s power over adversity.

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Day 758: The Ten Thousand Things

Cover for The Ten Thousand ThingsIn keeping with my goal to read all of the finalists and winners of the Walter Scott Prize, here is my review of the winner for 2015. The Ten Thousand Things is John Spurling’s novel about a turbulent period in Chinese history. It is written from the point of view of Wang Meng, an actual artist of the time, and inspired by Wang’s paintings of the ten thousand things, all of creation.

This novel is related by Wang from his prison cell, where he chooses to tell about his past in the third person. He has been arrested on charges of conspiracy because he accepted an invitation to view the art collection of the disgraced Chancellor Hu.

Wang’s story begins in a mountain retreat when he is already a grown man. He has resigned his minor government post to pursue his art, although strictly as an amateur. This action has disappointed his more ambitious wife, but she is barely a character in the novel.

China is uneasy under the Yuan dynasty, which is dominated by the Mongols. The Chinese upper class resent the fact that the powerful jobs go to Mongols. Taxes are heavy, and men are restricted to following the professions of their fathers. Wang’s own grandfather, General Meng, was controversial because of having decided to support the Yuan government instead of retiring from his government post as many of his peers did. In Wang’s time, revolts are underway under several different war lords and groups of bandits.

When Wang withdraws to his retreat, he has three fateful encounters. He meets Ni on the way there when he is forced to share a room in an inn. Ni is a great artist whose work affects how Wang views his own. Next, when Wang’s cousin Tao asks him to a nearby village to meet a woman he is thinking of marrying, Wang and Tao are just in time to witness a demand from the Red Scarf Bandits that she marry their chief. When her father asks Wang’s advice, he suggests that she choose for herself. She decides to marry the bandit, and soon becomes a bandit queen named the White Tiger. Finally, Wang meets Zhu, a would-be monk from a nearby monastery who asks Wang to take him as his servant. Wang politely explains he can’t afford to and advises him to join the bandits if he wants to learn about the world. Later, Zhu becomes a powerful war lord and then an emperor.

This novel documents the turbulent period of the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty and the establishment of the even more repressive, but Chinese-lead, Ming dynasty under the paranoid Emperor Hongwu. It moves a little slowly and is told in a detached way from the point of view of an artist who attempts to stay away from the seats of power. It also spends a good deal of time describing Wang’s paintings. The novel reflects a sophisticated and intellectual culture, although it certainly concentrates its story in the upper realms of this society.

link to NetgalleyI think it was this detached viewpoint that kept me from enjoying the novel more. The subject matter is interesting, as I know little of Chinese history and have long thought it was a ridiculous bias that we didn’t learn any history of the Far East in school except when it intersected with Western history. Yet most of the characters seem only sketchily drawn, and I didn’t fully engage. The novel is said to illustrate the principles of Daoism, but since my brief reading on that subject left me completely clueless, I did not understand in what way the philosophy is reflected, except perhaps in the perceptions of the narrator.

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