Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book Review ~ The Hidden Life of Humans

And now for something completely different.

I'm in my fifth month of
John Mutford's Great Canadian Book Challenge. My own personal challenge has been to read and review 13 Canadian books about dogs over the course of a year. Erika Ritter's The Hidden Live of Humans is my most recent read, and clocks in as book #7 of my 13.

I was kicking myself when I realized that this book would qualify for the challenge. My friend Tracy has a book swap each spring, and wouldn't you know it, I passed up my chance to score this book for free at this year's swap. It was also recently for sale on chapters.indigo.com for one lousy buck. gah! Eh well, it was worth the $14.56 CAD I paid at amazon.ca. But, still, free or close-to-free would have been lovely.

Erika Ritter is a Canadian wordsmith extraordinaire. Hidden Life is her sole novel - a Canadian bestseller when it was published in 1997 - but she has also penned a few collections of essays, as well as nonfiction. She is also a playwright, public speaker, and well-known CBC commentator. She grew up in my home province (SK) but now resides in Ontario.

Okay, so, Hidden Life. The basic premise is that the main character - a single 40-something woman named Dana Jaeger - unwittingly ends up taking care of an ex-boyfriend's dog while the ex is cavorting around Finland with his ice-princess Finnish dentist girlfriend. Murphy - the dog - has strong opinions, and pieces of the book are told from Murphy's point of view. Before I realized that the book was published in 1997, I thought either Ritter ripped off Garth Stein's idea from The Art of Racing in the Rain, or this was one of those synchronicity thingamajiggies. Kudos to Ritter for being about a decade ahead of Stein.

Overall, I enjoyed the book; I read from start to finish in about a week, and my reading time is pretty fragmented, so a week is good. It's sort of chick lit with an edge. It has some dark bits, including Dana's ex-husband, who is dying of AIDS; a graphic account of an accident Dana endures; and some uncomfortable childhood memories Dana dredges up. The humour is a little dry, which is just fine. Some of the narrative devices are not my cup of tea, though. Dreams are one device that allow us to see things we wouldn't otherwise be able to see from the narrators' viewpoints. It was a little fantastical for me. Also, Murphy is really very smart - so smart that I'm skeptical, and that's saying a lot. Much is made about Murphy's inherent dog-ness - he humps the laundry bag, for example - but at the same time, he is incredibly philosophical. In Stein's Racing in the Rain, Enzo acquires his smarts through watching t.v. Murphy's smarts are not explained, and we are expected to believe he has his moments of deep thought interspersed with his laundry-bag exploits. I dunno if it works. Maybe it's just me. Maybe that's what Ritter was trying to say - dogs are dogs, but they also have moments of insight that would blow our socks off (all the better to get their grimy little paws on said socks!).

If I did star reviews, I would probably give this 3.5 out of 5. A good read, not too heavy, keeps the reader interested. That said, it didn't really speak to me, and I really doubt I will ever re-read it. I'm on the fence about whether to shelve it or give it away.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Beagles, Beagles, Halloweiners!

Okay, fess up! How many of you dress your dogs up for Halloween? I did for the first time last year, when Gabe was 4 and Archie was 3. I was ordering a bunch of dog toys online for Christmas, for all the dogs in my life (there are many besides my two - Emma and Patsy, Lennox, Farley, Kavanna, Lucky, Kona, Kody, and now Luca and Rowan too). The store I was shopping at had $5 "costumes" - a two-dimensional hat, a bandana, and a collar decoration. Gabe was a tough and very serious sheriff (cowboy hat, red and black bandana, and sheriff's badge) and Archie was a Mexican, complete with sombraro and fringed purple bandana (appropriate costume for my jumping bean).

This year, we got more creative. Gabe's swim instructor suggested he go as Michael Phelps, and together we brainstormed how to make a costume that would work. And Archie was finally my hot dog - I've coveted that costume for years!

How about your canines?

Book Review ~ Call of the Wild

I'm into Month Five of the Great Canadian Book Challenge. Participants are to read and review 13 Canadian books over the course of a year, and since this is a dog blog, all 13 of my books will be about dogs. John Mutford, organizer of the Challenge, suggested I give Jack London's The Call of the Wild a go. I remember having this book as a child. I never did read it, though, and it's probably good that I didn't. I would have been scarred for life. I have no idea why it is marketed as a children's book.

The Call of the Wild lays claim to its Canadian-ness through its geography. London himself, of course, was American, and the book's main character, a Shepherd/St. Bernard cross named Buck, is also American. However, except for the opening pages, the book is set in the Canadian Yukon, during the Klondike Gold Rush. Although I have my master's degree in history, most of my knowledge of the gold rush comes from a history reality program, called "Klondike: Quest for the Gold" which aired on History TV and PBS in 2003. Having some background knowledge is helpful as London doesn't spend a lot time describing the the gold rush itself. Buck's journey is absolutely heartbreaking, but without the background, it seems as though this story is being told because it is exceptional - "a remarkable journey of courage" or some such hackneyed Disneyfied expression. But the sad truth is that most sled dogs probably experienced the same hardships as Buck during this era.

The book opens with Buck being dognapped from his comfortable home in California. He is sold to work as a sled dog in the far north. Buck is a quick learner, and adapts quickly to life on the trail. However, he experiences much hardship, including the frigid northern cold, vicious dog fights, brutal beatings from humans, starvation, overwork, and the loss of his comrades. It is above all an adventure story, a tale of adapting in order to survive harsh experiences.

Although the narration is in the omniscient third person, the bulk of the story is about Buck and his relationships with other dogs and a few humans. Because of this, there is very little dialogue. I appreciated reading a "dog book" that actually focussed on dogs for once!

My final analysis: I can understand why this is considered London's masterpiece. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. I'll probably keep my copy because it is a classic, but I won't be reading it again. It's just too harsh.

I've googled without success to find out how many copies of this book have been sold over the past century. The best I can do is assure you that it is in the "millions." The full text is also available online, if you are comfortable reading at your computer screen. I read the TOR edition pictured above (4 Canadian dollars, new).