Tag Archives: book criticism

‘On Talking Terms’, by Turid Rugaas – review

On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming SignalsOn Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Calming signals are genetically inherited canine language used for  communicating with each other to maintain healthy social hierarchy, since dogs, like their wolf ancestors, are pack animals dependent on sensory input, such as olfactory, auditory, and visual perceptions. Accordingly, dogs communicate with themselves through body motions, such as turning their heads to the other side (as a goodwill gesture in greeting between two dogs), lifting a front paw (showing peaceful intentions), yawning (as a way of reducing stress), bowing (releasing tension), etc. In this book, Ms. Turid Rugaas, an internationally acclaimed Norwegian canine behavioral counseling trainer, primarily focuses on the needs of understanding these signals from dogs as their way of communicating to and with their canids and humans alike. In the context of regarding the essence and importance of calming signals from dogs, this book offers a visual glimpse of what they are like with pictures of the dogs in each accordant motion, which I find helpful to perceive it.

However, the book does not provide the reader with more in-depth knowledge on the calming signals on the grounds of scientific terms; rather it is more of a pamphlet introducing the basic concepts of the calming signals. In fact, this book of less than 100 pages recounts the author’s personal experience with her beloved dog Vesla, who had been her faithful and effective assistant in helping other dogs’ behavioral problems solved, in her close observation of their calming signals expressed and exchanged. It is needless to say that such personal experience saturated with her firm conviction in positive training of dogs is deemed highly valuable and thus contributes significantly to the purpose of this book, which I wholeheartedly appreciate as a kindred spirit. But it is also equally tantalizing to whet my desire of discovering more about the origins of the calming signals, the comparison with those of wolves in terms of evolutionary aspects, and more examples thereof.

In summary, this book is a lovely quick read about dogs’ calming signals at a glance. In addition, the reader cannot help agreeing to the author’s view of dogs not as her subordinates to be trained with dominance but as her “children” who need love and patience because dogs as being of conflict-solving nature want to keep us in their company by trying to speak to us through calming signals. So if you just want to see what these calming signals are about in a nutshell, this is an informative and affectionate read.

‘The Open Boat,’ by Stephen Crane – review

The Open Boat and Other StoriesThe Open Boat by Stephen Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four men in a dinghy adrift on a sea for 30 hours. The tempest of waves and a great shark occasionally circling around the perimeter of the boat. And the men rowing endlessly as if it were their only tangible way of protesting against their fates. It all happened in reality because the author Stephen Crane himself experienced the ordeal as one of the four men from the sunk SS Commodore off the coast of Florida en route to Cuba, where Crane had been sent as a war correspondent. The short story of the Open Boat is as realistic as it can be based upon a factual event the author himself was fatefully partaken in.

The four survivors of the vessel were aggregates in a dinghy bound by a remote hope of finding a rescue crew in the middle of the ocean that moved them with terrible grace of waves. The men were a captain, a cook, an oiler, and a correspondent, who was the author himself. There was a subtle brotherhood of men built in the boat who took care of each other. Crane surmised that the captain’s heartfelt devotion to the safety of the motley crew resulted in comradeship, which the author himself had always regarded as a hypocritical concept of men until then.

There were indeed moments of despair as their drifting became protracted, and the author saw this as nature not regarding human as important. He would jeer at any signs of nature in any deity form because thinking of the captain and the two other seamen who had worked so hard on the sea in such distress was the abominable injustice.

Stephen Crane was a great American realist writer who later influenced Ernest Hemingway. Born in 1871 as a ninth child of Protestant Methodist parents in Newark, NJ, his literary talent began when he wrote his first poem at the age of eight. Although brilliant, Crane was not academically inclined, so he left University of Syracuse and became a kind of itinerant writer. It is said that Crane was a naturalist writer who emphasized observation in the portrayal of reality based on scientific principles of objectivity and detachment applied to the story of human characteristics. However, in my opinion, he was more of a realist writer who focused on objective, truthful presentations of details of the ordinary lives influenced by Gustave Flaubert and George Eliot. In this story, Crane’s use of vocabulary was pithy and straightforward with elegant expressions of emotions and feelings that so appropriately described the situations in which the characters were trapped.

After Crane’s untimely death at the age of twenty-eight in a Black Forest sanitorium in Germany, Crane’s works began to gain their long overdue acclaim, one of which was this story of the sunk vessel and his own experience thereof. Stephen Crane’s works should deserve wider readership because he’s the first and foremost American writer in Realism literary movement who paid attention to the lives of the ordinary by being the experience of living among the ordinary and writing the existential presentations of the ordinary lives.

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Bartleby, the Scrivener A Story Of Wall-Street by Herman Melville

Bartleby, the Scrivener A Story Of Wall-StreetBartleby, the Scrivener A Story Of Wall-Street by Herman Melville

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was more than 10 years ago when I first read Herman Melville’s Bartleby, a short story about an unwonted young man employed as a scrivener by a Wall Street lawyer. At that time, Bartleby struck me as a plain eccentric, imprudent worker who had the temerity to reject his boss’s orders. He was just a mentally deranged man with only a few words, other than the monumental diction of “I would prefer not to do …“

But now I think of him differently. Maybe it’s because I have more experiences in a journey/sailing of life than I had when I first encountered the Bartleby character. Whatever it may be, my perspective of the character has been changed in a humane way. Since I re-read the story this afternoon, I have felt bottomless sympathy for Bartleby. Mixed with pathos and sprinkles of humor in the narrative of his benevolent former employer, the figure of Bartleby evokes springs of human compassion and humanity itself. And my feelings for this tragic scrivener amount to what the narrator felt about his former employee.

I am not hereby intent on “analyzing” the psychological aspects of Bartleby and his former Wall Street lawyer boss. And I don’t think that even the writer Melville himself ascribed such psychoanalytical theory to these characters in mind when he wrote the story. To me the story itself tells what drove a sensitive man like Bartleby to such demise in the eyes of a compassionate man – and a decent employer seldom found these days. Loneliness, Hopelessness, Sorrow, and Reality of Death all packaged in letters to be burned in flames deprived the humanness of the forlorn scrivener. The Death of Humanity, that is. Having worked in the Office of Dead Letters at Washington must have been a traumatic experience to someone like Bartleby with eggshell sensitivity. Surely, there is no doubt that Bartleby was mentally disturbed, but who would hate or even despise him for his malaise?…

Readers will conclude that it’s only a fictional story in which no such characters will/would exist in reality. But I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, I have always believed that fictions are always built upon factual elements of human life to a certain degree. Dismissing stories as creations of imaginativeness seems to miss the fundamental truths laid behind the subject matters of stories. That the multitudes of change and choice of our human life with a bit of creative imaginations is a substance of any story. Ditto Stephen King, who has once said that the stories are artifacts that are not really made up, but that are based upon preexisting objects we discover. Ditto Shakespeare who once said we are all actors and actress on a stage called a “Life.”

The tall, lean, pallid and lugubrious image of Bartleby the Scrivener still lingers in my mind… All those returned/erturning letters flooded into the office every single day might have come from those who died in despair, those who died hopeless, and those who died suffocated by insurmountable sufferings; Bartleby had lost his own sense of existence, feeling utterly dispirited, pessimistic, and lethargic in performing demands of his duty. It was the loss of meaning of life that made him passively resistant to all the ordinary functions of daily life which all seemed insignificant to him. The life itself was nihilistic and hence non-existential to Bartleby. Humanity in the expressions of feelings and emotions meant nothing to him; it had ceased to exist in the form of dead letter attesting to existential horrors, which had led the authors to death, which had taken the poor Bartleby as the witness thereof.

Thus the lamentable outcry of the narrator still deeply reverberates in my mind even after I closed the book: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, Humanity!”