Saturday, June 15, 2013

Review: The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford

As a kid, I fell in love with the movie inspired, thirty years later, by Sheila Burnford's novel, The Incredible Journey. That movie was called Homeward Bound and had a cast of talking animals who set out on an incredible one hundred mile journey to return home. The Disney film gave the animals human personalities: Chance the bulldog was goofy and reckless; Shadow the golden retriever was wise and loyal; and Sassy the Himalayan cat was, well, sassy. Burnford's novel deals with the animals much more realistically. They don't talk with one another except by language of instinct. The novel is much more about survival and animal behavior, though companionship is important as well. What Burnford does is show just how amazing our two favorite pets, cats and dogs, are.

The Hunter family, leaving on a nine-month trip to Europe, have left their beloved animals with their trusted friend, John Longridge. These animals, not named until the very end of the tale, are an old bull terrier, a young Labrador, and a Siamese cat (Disney decided to go with more popular and attractive animals for Homeward Bound). Burnford skips the requisite drama of the kids, teary-eyed, leaving their beloved pets behind, and she also does away with any tensions between the three pets. These animals have grown comfortable with their stay at Longridge's place. Except for the young Labrador. The Labrador, rather than being the goofy animal his counterpart is in Homeward Bound, plays the role of the leader. That's because in the animal kingdom it's not the old and frail who are the leaders, but the young and strong. On the day Longridge sets off for a lengthy fishing trip, the Labrador decides it's time to return home, and the other two follow along.

Life isn't so easy in the wild for these animals. This is especially apparent to the bull terrier early on, whose age slows him down. Amazingly, this pack of animals is attuned to the injuries and weaknesses of its members, and the Labrador leads them to a resting place when the older dog runs out of energy. This suggests animals do have a sense of empathy. Survival instinct would say to leave the old dog behind, but companionship tells these animals to behave differently. We also see this when the cat begins hunting in order to feed not just itself, but the weak old bull terrier as well. That the cat would do this for the dog is believable when you consider the number of little dead mice your own cat leaves for you on the front porch.

Burnford describes these animals with fondness. They aren't judgmental. They crave your attention and companionship. They can sense when you are feeling lonely. They can even protect you if need be. They also seem to sense that their family extends beyond just the humans, but one another. We see this in the way the animals feed each other and provide warmth at night. It's the cat whose perhaps the most impressive of the bunch. He scares off a full-grown bear, and at another point he must outwit a much more terrifying hunter than himself. The dogs have their own adventures as well, but excel the most when it comes to begging food off of the humans they come across on their journey.

The novel is a tribute to our beloved pets. They are attuned to their owners so much that they are able to travel one hundred miles through wilderness to return home. In order to survive their journey, they must depend on one another for sustenance and for comfort. These animals are not only loyal to their owners, but to one another as well. While these animals do travel on an incredible journey, Burnford provides just the right details to make it credible - and enjoyable.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: Adam Bede, by George Eliot

Adam Bede, George Eliot's first full-length novel, borders between traditional values and liberal attitudes regarding women (at least for its time). The novel features two young women who dream of something bigger than their prescribed course in life. For Dinah Morris, it is to be a Methodist preacher and live among the needy, much to the chagrin of her family. For Hetty Sorrel, it is to leave her farmer life and enter a higher class through marriage to a gentleman. Both women risk ridicule; the difference is that one woman's pursuit is much more noble than the other's. Watching the characters in the novel try to make a happy life for themselves, it becomes clear there is more social pressure placed on women to conform than on men.

There are four central characters in this sprawling narrative: Adam Bede, Hetty Sorrel, Arthur Donnithorne, and Dinah Morris. Adam Bede is an honest working man with a powerful build, a charismatic personality, a sometimes fiery temper, and a strong moral character based on the ethics of hard work. Adam is perhaps the most remarkable young man in the town of Hayslope. He is well-liked by everyone. He lives with his constantly complaining mother, his drunkard father, and his brother, Seth, who is in all regards an inferior version of himself: meek, smaller, and kinder - too kind. Adam could have his pick of any woman in the town, and he sets his eyes on the beautiful Hetty.

Hetty is a seventeen year old girl who lives with her aunt and uncle, the Poysers. She's not well-educated and always appears aloof, but she stands out because of her remarkable beauty. Adam's not the only one fond of her. There are several other suitors, but Adam is superior, at least among those in his own class. Hetty, however, does not love Adam, though she knows he loves her. She has dreams of moving into a higher social class, where she can look pretty all day and be admired for her beauty. Yes, she's shallow, but by the story's end she was the character I felt the most sympathy for, partly because she's so naive. In our modern world with our modern cultural thought, there should be nothing wrong with Hetty rising to a higher class if a man of higher social standing is willing to marry her. However, in this world of England in 1799, such a marriage would be seen as scandalous. As such, Hetty sees something more than mere flirtation in the attention she receives from the well-groomed Arthur Donnithorne, who is heir to the Chase, the estate overseeing Hayslope.

Arthur is the most respected, most liked man in the entire town. His father, the old squire, is cranky and stingy, and the people can't wait until he dies so Arthur can take over and make improvements to the town. Arthur prides himself on how well-liked he is, but this ego manifests itself in a friendly face. He is careful to wrong nobody. But this doesn't prevent him from falling falls in love with Hetty. It's difficult for a young man not to fall in love when a beautiful young woman appears so madly in love with him. Why this love is so wrong is because it's deceitful. Arthur, wanting to lead the life of a respectable gentleman, cannot marry a farmer's niece. His marriage must be with somebody of his social rank, not below it. Arthur continuously convinces himself their feelings for one another aren't very strong. It's just a little bit of flirtation. He tells himself again and again, "Tonight, tomorrow, I'll tell her this must stop." It's like when we tell ourselves that tomorrow we will start eating healthy, no more ice cream, but when tomorrow rolls around we convince ourselves that it's no harm to indulge just a little bit more. We always have tomorrow to do the right thing. For Arthur I do feel sympathy, because the world he lives in would not allow him to follow his heart in this case. Nonetheless, between the two, Hetty is more the victim because she risks losing everything.

The final major character to discuss is Dinah. Dinah serves as a foil to Hetty, and those who have some knowledge about Victorian literature (or even some modern romantic comedies), will be able to predict how the story ends based on this information alone. Dinah is remarkable in that she is a Methodist preacher, a position generally reserved for men. She has no desire to be married, but wishes to go off to the small town of Snowfield, where the people are poorer and more miserable than where she lives. Her aunt and uncle, again the Poysers, don't want her to leave, and her aunt begs that there are plenty of people who are miserable where they are. Dinah, though, wants to be with people who are more miserable and are in more need of her. To stay with the Poysers would mean Dinah is choosing her own material welfare over the spiritual welfare of a more needy people. Dinah is the one virtuous character without any faults. One could argue her desire to leave home to care for strangers is a fault, but I see it as a strength. She is choosing the terms of her life rather than allow society to make this choice for her.

The novel begins slowly, very slowly, being written in the verbose style of Victorian authors. Sometimes Eliot describes one too many pieces of furniture in a house, or one too many pieces of scenery. This is typical, and I see it as the author painting a scene with her words. Eliot, I admit, is a very effective painter of people and scenes. Characters are developed in full before things begin to happen to them. The reader gets to know each character very intimately, and we also get to know the narrator very well. This narrator is omniscient, though not objective. She passes judgments on characters and feels sympathy for them. In this day and age, such a writing style doesn't fly, thankfully. It's nice when the reader can make their own judgment of a person or action. However, Eliot is much more effective at developing characters using the omniscient narrator than many authors today are using a less knowing narrator.

After a slow start, momentum builds quickly. Some of the best scenes are the seduction of Arthur and Hetty. Most romance authors today fail to recreate the thrill of seduction the way Eliot does here. I felt just as giddy as the characters felt, though I knew what they were doing was wrong according to the values of this world. I also felt compassion for characters when things didn't go their way. Adam and Dinah may be the most perfect, most flawless of the characters, but my favorites were Arthur and Hetty, because it is more human to be flawed. It's clear the narrator loves her two "good" characters the most, but she still feels pity towards those two flawed lovers. Pity, however, is a condescending emotion, and it is Adam and Dinah who are the most rewarded.

In the afterword of the Signet Classics version of the novel, Regina Barreca argues that this novel belongs not to Adam Bede, but to Dinah and Hetty. I would agree, except that I believe this novel is more Hetty's than Dinah's. Dinah's fate is sealed early on, though nobody realizes it yet, because of her goodness. Hetty's troubles feel much more real, much more modern than Dinah's. It's true that Dinah chooses to assert her independence by choosing to live life her own way, but this assertion is cloaked in a very conservative disguise, since she is still serving under the one ultimate male: God. Hetty, sure, is selfish, but she dreams of a better life for her own sake. Her teenage mind grows tired at the prospect of living a life of toil, and can you blame her? She has the makings of a modern heroine. Disney princesses, such as Cinderella, Ariel, and Belle, all dream of bigger, better things than the simple, toilsome lives they lead. Perhaps it's true that Hetty has no larger aspirations than to be wealthy and comfortable, but it seems a tad unfair the way the novel punishes her for daring to dream of a life other than the traditional one prescribed for her.

Class mobility is impossible in this world, especially for women. There is an assumption about the natural differences between people of different classes. The narrator herself holds many prejudices towards the peasants, as she calls them, and can't help but point out when certain peasant feelings get the better of even the superior-minded Adam Bede. Those of higher social classes look upon the peasant class with either condescending pity, apathy, or disgust. They enjoy inviting peasants to lavish parties just to see how amazed they are at the sight of such a huge mansion and so much food. However, it seems that very few of the farmers dream of achieving a higher class. In fact, they frown at the thought. When Hetty puts a rose in her hair, given to her by Adam, Adam disapproves and explains that he dislikes when women decorate themselves with such ornaments. Today Adam would be seen as controlling, and I would say that may be true, yet Adam is a good man and he is only speaking based on the values of times long past. It is dangerous for Hetty to ornament herself because then she might soon see herself as too good for an artisan such as Adam. Adam's disapproval, then, is a protective instinct.

The novel is an extraordinary read. It doesn't measure up to Eliot's Middlemarch, but that is a novel leagues better than most anything ever written. Not only does it have an enjoyable story (mostly), but it's fun to dissect the cultural differences between this time and our time. Eliot, however, does describe a lot of universals, particularly in terms of human feeling, and that's why it's so valuable. And old as it is, the love triangle is a plot device loved by today's readers. That said, this is a novel whose story could not possibly play out in the same way today because the values that determine the story's direction come from a more traditional, less progressive era. Anyone who wants to read a great story, or anyone who loves Victorian literature, should set aside some time for Adam Bede - or any George Eliot, for that matter.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Guest Video Blog: Fahrenheit 451 Video by Jack Collins (Academic Earth)

I am pleased to share with you a video on Fahrenheit 451 done by Jack Collins, for the website Academic Earth. This video, in less than three minutes, succinctly summarizes the plot, characters, and themes of the novel, and the voice over is accompanied by very stylish and poignant drawings.

The purpose is to provoke thought and discussion, so please feel free to add to the discussion on my blog here or at the following link where you can also watch the video:

I hope you enjoy this video as much as I did.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: Wringer, by Jerry Spinelli

Wringer is aimed at around the same age group as Jerry Spinelli's Newbery Award winner, Maniac Magee, but it has a more cohesive narrative. The fact that this is, in essence, an animal story will make this more enjoyable for all age groups, even though that animal is a very unusual one. The novel has some dark themes, as suggested by the cover. While friendship is a major theme, abuse is another underlying theme - namely the abuse that we put up with because we believe it is for our own improvement. Wringer is about a boy who feels compelled to do something that terrifies him.

Wringer has two plots that merge together. Both revolve around the main character, nine-year old Palmer. Palmer's desire is to become initiated into a group of boys that include the obnoxious Beans, his sidekick Mutto, and the acquiescent Henry. Palmer's mother despises these boys and wishes Palmer would befriend the nice girl across the street, Dorothy. But moms just don't get it. Sure Beans treats Palmer like dirt and gives him a cruel nickname, Snots, but the important thing is to be a part of the group. The guys take Palmer to receive The Treatment from an older boy. This Treatment involves getting punched in the arm ten times, so that Palmer has a bruise that lasts a good week. Sure it's painful, but it's nothing compared to the satisfaction of being part of the "in" crowd. The bruise serves as a badge of honor. Now Beans, Mutto, and Henry are best friends of Palmer's.

The other storyline involves Pigeon Day at the annual Family Fest. Five thousand pigeons are captured for this event, for the purposes of being shot for sport. The person who shoots the most pigeons wins a golden pigeon trophy, one of which proudly sits on Palmer's fireplace mantel for the day his father won it. The shooting event raises lots of money for the park, and it serves as a great attraction, however, Palmer dreads this day every year. One part of the sport involves boys, aged ten, who run out to collect the bodies of the downed pigeons. If a pigeon is still alive, it's the job of these boys to wring its neck and kill it. One simple twist to put the bird out of its misery. Palmer has nightmares about the first day he witnessed this. Worse, it's expected that all ten-year-old boys will become wringers, and Palmer fears nothing more.

So things take an unexpected turn when a pigeon begins to visit Palmer's bedroom every day. This is when things begin to change for Palmer. He starts spending less time with his friends, because they are vicious pigeon-haters. In fact, Beans relishes the thought of becoming a wringer so much he tortures helpless animals in preparation. Palmer is afraid that if Beans knew about his new pet pigeon, Nipper, that would spell the end for the bird.

The story of friendship that Spinelli tells between the Palmer and Nipper is surprisingly effective. One usually doesn't attach sentimental feelings to a pigeon, which is usually referred to as a rat with wings, but Spinelli gives the bird personality. I have no doubts that there are kids who, after reading this novel, will want a pigeon for a pet. Spinelli inserts pigeon facts throughout the novel, facts that don't really enhance the story but help bring the bird to life. The way he describes Nipper's actions suggests Spinelli has a special fondness for pigeons. Such as the fact that they walk, where most small birds hop. Or the way they nod their heads as though they are the most agreeable creatures on the earth. Spinelli's description of Nipper reminded me of Herman Melville's discussion of whales in Moby-Dick, which are viewed with awe and affection. Spinelli paints the lowly pigeon as though it is just as grand as the magnificent whale.

The novel does begin to move in predictable fashion. Based on the plot elements I have shared, you can probably guess with a good degree of accuracy where the story heads. There are moments towards the end where the story moves very slow as it makes its trek towards its inevitable conclusion. Still, this is a very enjoyable book overall. It uses lots of humor and provides good insight into the thoughts and feelings of a nine-year-old boy. This book is a testament to how our love for an animal can cause us to grow as a person.