Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Completed: The Sea-Wolf

[I started this post nearly a month ago... I have struggled to write something brilliant, but am now giving up to move on... it is what it is.]

Dear Jenny,

Well, I'm counting this book as "read," even though I listened to the audio book. Bill still maintains that it's cheating, but I'm stickin' with it. Also, I have to say that I did have the book in hand as I listened. There were many passages that I re-read after hearing them, so I feel like I was an "active" reader.

Sooo... about the book, then. :)

I loved it! It kept me on the edge of my seat (or "feet," as I frequently listened to it while walking) the entire time. There was a real tension throughout this book that almost killed me (I hate suspense) but the ending was so damned satisfying that it was all worth it.

Plot Summary
(If anyone who is not Jenny is reading this and does not want to be spoiled, now is the time to stop, because I'm about to give the whole thing away...)

Do you know the plot? I knew absolutely nothing about this book when I picked it up, so I really had no idea what to expect. The book jumps right into the action as the narrator, Humphrey Van Weyden, is traveling in a ferry across the SF Bay (Yay!) when it runs into another ship and sinks (Oh, no!) A seal-hunting schooner, the Ghost, picks him up and he thinks they will return him immediately to land (Yay!) But Wolf Larsen, the captain of the ship, don't work that way. He needs another crew member, so Humphrey is kidnapped and becomes an unwilling member of the crew (Oh, no!)

Wolf Larsen is a character. Powerful, frightening, ruthless, incredibly intelligent. Not formally educated, but amazingly well-read. He has a vice-grip on everyone on his ship, both mentally and physically. I can't do this description justice because, well, I'm not Jack London. Even though it seems so easy to categorize this man -- Let's just hate him! -- London has created a complex character that also demands respect and, in the end, even sympathy.

So Humphrey joins the crew and the book covers the brutality of life at sea, particularly at sea with Wolf Larsen (the seal-hunting was a bit difficult to take... I had to distract myself during those scenes). But things get really interesting when they take on another shipwreck survivor: Maud Brewster. A poet and, more importantly, a laaaaady. Humphrey had written a review of her book, so they know of one another from their previous lives. Not long after she arrives, Humphrey falls for her... and so does Wolf Larsen. And that made me mighty nervous, I gotta say.

At one point, Humphrey catches Wolf assaulting Maud and decides right then to escape. We've already seen things turn bad for the other folks who have tried to escape, so this is nerve-wracking. 600 miles off the coast of Japan, these two steal a bunch of provisions and a sealing boat and hit the open water. This part had me just feverish with anticipation: Will they make it? Will Wolf catch them? What will he do when he does?!

They land on a deserted island and they manage to set up camp and live pretty well there for several weeks, hoping that someone will sail by and see them. Humphrey hides his love for Maud the entire time and we get the idea that Maud is falling for him too, but she's also keeping it to herself. I guess this part was somewhat unbelievable... two people, shipwrecked on a deserted island, attracted to each other... we'd probably see a little bow-chicka-bow-wow here. But they keep it G-rated. And you know I'm okay with that. :)

After they're there for a couple of weeks, who should turn up run aground on the beach but... Wolf Larsen and the Ghost! (Dun-dun-dun!) He's had an ongoing revenge war with his brother (Death Larsen -- nice family, eh?) and his brother has finally won. Death has stolen all of Wolf's men and sabotaged his ship, setting Wolf adrift at sea. By sheer coincidence, he washes up on the island where Humphrey and Maud are camping out. (Okay. Writing that now I see how very, very unlikely this is, but while totally engrossed in this book, I did not care.) Throughout the book, Wolf has had debilitating headaches and they are now getting worse. His most recent bout has caused him to go blind and he's decided that his plan is to go ahead and die on the Ghost, grounded on this island.

Humphrey and Maud have other plans, as they'd like to get the hell outta dodge and, if they can repair the Ghost, they can make that happen. Wolf forbids them from fixing the ship, but his blindness has taken its toll, so he's not as powerful as he once was. Even so, he does manage to throw a few wrenches in their plans, so this part of the novel continues to be fraught with tension: Will they get the ship fixed before Wolf sabotages it? When he does sabotage it, will they be able to repair his damage? Will Wolf kill Humphrey? And...Why doesn't Humphrey just kill Wolf?!

Oh, dear Humphrey! He cannot bring himself to injure or kill a man who is not physically threatening him and Wolf knows this and uses it to his advantage. He actually has the gun on Wolf and Wolf is mocking him and taunting him to pull the trigger but dear Humphrey cannot. I would argue that Wolf has been "threatening" Humphrey since he kidnapped him into forced servitude, but Humphrey can only act defensively, so Wolf is safe from harm at Humphrey's hands. At one point, he tricks Humphrey into getting very close to him (by faking a headache spell and falling down some stairs -- Humphrey! Don't do it! He's faking!) and nearly crushes him to death, but Maud clubs Wolf over the head. It's definitely a "YEAH! You go, girl!" moment. After that incident, they handcuff Wolf. He still manages to set his mattress on fire in an attempt to burn the boat, but they put it out in time. See what I mean? Excitement at every turn! The tension was palpable, even with Wolf practically debilitated. The character is that powerful.

In the end, they get the boat going and do get off of the island. Wolf dies at sea so they heave him over. They see a friendly US ship and when they know they're going to be rescued, they finally admit their love for one another and seal it with a kiss. The End.

Okay! Now that I've told you the entire plot (I didn't really mean to... it just sort of happened), here are a few totally random thoughts and observations... it's time to get this thing posted!

Wolf and Humphrey
What a complex relationship these two have -- just fascinating! It's easy enough to vilify Wolf for kidnapping Humphrey. And yet, Humphrey ends up being grateful to Wolf for making him the man that he is in the end of the book.

Upon meeting him, Wolf questions Humphrey about what he does for a living, and when Humphrey says that he'll pay Wolf good money to return him to land, he growls, ""Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men's legs. You've never had any of your own. You couldn't walk alone between two sunrises and hustle the meat for your belly for three meals. Let me see your hand" (25). It is, of course, soft.

As the book proceeds, those hands toughen up. I love this line (Humphrey is thinking to himself): "I had not been called 'Sissy' Van Weyden all my days without reason, and that 'Sissy' Van Weyden should be capable of doing this thing was a revelation to Humphrey Van Weyden, who knew not whether to be exultant or ashamed" (79).

By the end, he does become "exultant" by these changes. When he is repairing the shipwrecked Ghost to save himself and Maud, his pride in his work is palpable. Sooo... Humphrey would not have had these hard-core survival skills if it had not been for Wolf Larsen kidnapping him. But then... if Wolf Larsen had not kidnapped him, he wouldn't be in the position where he needed the survival skills in the first place.

I'm sure this topic is hotly debated in literary circles and I don't know which side I favor. Part of me feels that yes, Humphrey is a better man for having gotten his hands dirty doing manual labor. On the other hand, I'm outraged at the idea of anyone being kidnapped and forced into labor against their will. Well done, Jack London. Well. Done!

The Writing. It's breathtaking.
Besides the exciting (if, at times, improbable) story, the writing that really makes this book. It is so lyrical -- the poetry of it really swept me away. Here is one of many amazing descriptions -- Wolf's eyes the first time Humphrey sees them:
The eyes -- and it was my destiny to know them well -- were large and handsome, wide apart as the true artist's are wide, sheltering under a heavy brow and arched over by thick black eyebrows. The eyes themselves were of that baffling protean gray which is never twice the same; which runs through many shades and colorings like intershot silk in sunshine; which is gray, dark and light, and greenish gray, and sometimes of the clear azure of the deep sea. They were eyes that masked the soul with a thousand guises, and that sometimes opened, at rare moments, and allowed it to rush up as though it were about to fare forth nakedly into the world on some wonderful adventure -- eyes that could brood with the hopeless sombreness of leaden skies; that could snap and crackle points of fire like those which sparkle from a whirling sword; that could grow chill as an arctic landscape, and yet again, that could warm and soften and be all a-dance with love-lights, intense and masculine, luring and compelling, which at the same time fascinate and dominate women till they surrender in a gladness of joy and of relief and sacrifice. [24]

And re-reading it here, I can hear the narrator of my audiobook -- Frank Muller, who did a wonderful job -- reading it in my head and he really nailed it. He brought the poetry of the words to life! I could cite about a dozen more examples in this book where I either rewound (what do we call "rewinding" now in the all-digital world? I still find myself saying, "books on tape," so I am apparently hopeless) or grabbing the book itself to re-read the passage. Really breathtaking.

A quick comment on other reviews...
This didn't end up being much of a "review," I must admit (although I'm not sure that any of my "reviews" really are... is there a class for this? I don't think I was very good at "book reports" as a kid... should I be trying to write 5 paragraph essays here?) so I read some other reviews to see what 1000s of others have said before me.

I agreed with many of them except: it seems as though the "romance" part of the book is frequently considered the weakest point, but I was so happy to discover that it's a happy-ending love story that I actually said, "Hey! It's a love story!" when it ended. Out loud. Walking down the street. By myself. So I was all right with it.


PS - I took the photo in this post one morning as I headed out for a walk, listening to The Sea-Wolf. My grandmother always used to say, "Pink sky at night, sailors' delight. Pink sky in the morning, sailors' warning." Although... the day that I took this photo turned out pretty nice, so I guess it's not always 100% reliable.


  1. K,

    I have to admit that I knew *nothing* about The Sea Wolf, but it does sound like a great story! I really have skipped so many of the "classic" authors. I think it's because the kind of writing you describe here can be really hard for me...I just read too fast. Even in the long excerpt above, I'll confess to sort of zoning out. My brain sort of goes: Yes, I get it, his eyes,so dramatic, moving on...

    I think that's one of the reasons I like rereading. The first time around, I just have to find out what happens and don't pay attention to the language. Only when rereading can I slow down and enjoy it. As a matter of fact, one of the greatest things about my tutoring gigs has been the chance to reread some truly great books: Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, etc. I read these books in high school, but I certainly don't remember them. But rereading them has been a real pleasure.

    Of course, I could probably slow down and read The Sea Wolf now that I know what happens!

    By the way, I am embarrassed by fast reading thing. I'm 38 years old and I still read like a kid. Oh well, I guess some habits are too hard to break.


    PS. Your review made me remember something I read in a review about Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot:

    "In an early chapter of Jeffrey Eugenides’ long-awaited third novel, “The Marriage Plot,” one of the three main characters, Brown University undergraduate Madeleine Hanna, seeks relief from the thorny cogitations of her semiotics class by reading Edith Wharton and George Eliot. It’s the early 1980s, and such indulgences are under attack. “Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights,” Madeleine thinks. “How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!”

  2. I thought about your fast reading when I included the quote above. As I looked at it when I was ready to publish, I thought, "Jenny probably won't read this..." Hee.

    Meanwhile, this is a case where the audiobook is your friend because, well, you can't rush the narrator (well, you could hit 2x on your iPhone, but it's weird to get the Chipmunks version...) In the case of The Sea-Wolf, I really benefited from having someone else "read it to me." Even though I don't mind slowing down (I read Tess, for god's sake!) it's nice not to have to *work* to slow down and take it in. Frank Muller does all the work for ya. ;)

    As for being embarrassed by your fast reading: don't be. I'm envious. I wish I could read faster -- I've got to get my October book done in the next 4 days! I think the ideal situation would be to be able to *control* one's reading speed... fast when you need it and slow when you want it. But then... is that too much *work* for reading?

  3. K,

    I love the idea of audiobooks, but I really don't know when I'd listen to them. I'm in the car with Darius most of the time, or he's yapping at me when I'm home in the kitchen and could be listening while doing dishes or whatever. I feel like I don't have a lot of free time to LISTEN, and that's a bummer.


    PS I love the photo--it's amazing! I forgot to put that in my first comment. I've also heard that mariner's warning, although with the color red instead of pink...