Friday, December 28, 2012

Tripping through Vegas with Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
A Savage Journey To The Heart of the American Dream
By Hunter S. Thompson,
Originally published by Random House Inc. 1972

This book has been on my must-read list for years, and now that I’ve finished it, I can say it’s been worth the wait. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a strange and curious book that belongs to an era in American culture that was summed up in Timothy Leary’s famous phrase, “turn on, tune in and drop out.”

Part memoir, part reportage and part travelogue, Fear and Loathing is Hunter S. Thompson’s (1937 - 2005) attempt to examine American attitudes towards drugs, money, success and failure in the glitzy heart of Las Vegas. To a large extent, the story is also a myth-building exercise for Thompson, who (as I understand it) regularly cast himself as a renegade in his non-fiction tales and in his life as well.

The story starts off with Thompson being sent to Las Vegas in 1971 to cover the Mint 400 car race featuring motorcycles and dune buggies. Thompson descends on Vegas in a red Chevrolet convertible, accompanied by a friend (his attorney), along with an ample stash of drugs, including marijuana, mescaline, LSD, uppers, downers, ether and tequila. The pair of miscreants stumble around town, stoned out of their minds, laying waste to hotel suites, cars, casinos, bars, credit cards and anyone unlucky enough to stand in their way. How they avoided being arrested and thrown in jail is one of the unexplained mysteries of this zany tale.

On the heels of the short-lived Mint 400 assignment, as he’s leaving Vegas, Thompson is given another assignment to stay in town to cover the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The ironies of a drug-addled journalist reporting on a drug conference were as thick as the marijuana smoke that seeps from the pages of this thin book. Thompson’s encounter with the maid in his hotel room, where he pretends to be a detective, is worth the price of the book alone.

Thompson’s writing style is anything but linear. He writes in a choppy, stream of consciousness narrative, flitting from scene to scene with the attention span of a crack addict.  Wherever the action is, that’s where Thompson is, too; he inserts himself willy-nilly as a protagonist in most of the scenes, as did Tom Wolfe in many of his brilliant essays from the 1960s and ‘70s. Thompson and Wolfe were pioneers of a writing style dubbed the New Journalism, where authors adopt techniques of the novel into their reporting.

In Fear and Loathing, Thompson is capable of good, clear writing, and there are passages that jump off the page in their ability to enlighten and entertain the reader.  For all of his rambling, erratic prose, you have to hand it to Thompson: his drunken, drugged-out escapades make for some colourful prose, and his observations on cultural trends are as sharp as a tack:
You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory of the forces of Good and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…. 
My final verdict on Fear and Loathing was that it was quick, amusing and quite funny at times. Despite a narrative that often meanders, and the author’s propensity for ingesting enough drugs and alcohol that would kill other mere mortals, Fear and Loathing successfully recreates a time when America was struggling to understand drug culture and the decade that gave rise to it.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Elmore Leonard hits a bullseye with Killshot

A novel by Elmore Leonard
(1989, William Morrow and Company, Inc.)

Elmore Leonard has been writing novels since the 1950s and is widely considered to be America’s pre-eminent crime novelist. After reading only my second Leonard novel, Killshot, it’s easy to see why he is held in such high esteem.

In Killshot, we meet a hired hit man nicknamed Blackbird (aka The Bird), who is sent from Toronto to Detroit to kill an aging mobster. After the hit, things get interesting. The Bird meets up with a not-too-bright ex-con, Richie Nix, who is about to extort $10,000 from a Michigan realtor. The plan quickly goes awry, and The Bird and Richie find themselves in deadly pursuit of the man who thwarted their plans.

Leonard is an absolute master of dialogue and fast-paced action, and in Killshot, he depicts a world that is seedy, desperate and violent, a place where hit men and ex-cons move comfortably from one act of violence to another. But with Leonard, acts of violence are a means of advancing the plot and are often infused with elements of black humour. Here is Richie holding up a convenience store:
The trick now was to do both almost at once. Richie raised the shotgun high enough to aim it at the girl and saw her drop the magazine as he said, ‘This’s your big day, honey. Empty out that cash drawer for me in a paper bag and set it on the counter. And some gum. Gimme a few packs of that bubble gum, too.’
Richie is always chewing gum and blowing bubbles, a characteristic that adds a comic element to his psychopathic nature. He also spends a good deal of time jabbering away and getting under the Bird’s skin. The uneasy relationship between these two outsiders is fraught with tension, laughter, and suspense.

But it’s not just the criminals and misfits that Leonard portrays so brilliantly. The two characters drawn into this bizarre plot, Wayne and Carmen Colson, are a middle-aged married couple on the straight and narrow, who work hard and love each other, but who are drawn into a deadly cat and mouse game against their will.  Wayne and Carmen are forced into survival mode to elude their trackers, and as the story unfolds, the chemistry between them is just as full of subtlety and nuance as the chemistry between the Bird and Richie.

The pacing of Killshot is quick and frenetic. Leonard is great at building suspense through non-stop action and concise dialogue. For anyone who has not read Elmore Leonard, Killshot is a great place to start. This novel demonstrates the author’s skill at developing believable characters and throwing them into circumstances that are beyond their control, with tragic-comic results.

It’s definitely worth a read.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Lincoln: A Man Who Belongs To The Ages

Team of RivalsThe Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
 by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2006, Simon and Shuster Paperbacks)

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin presents a complete portrait of one of the most enduring and captivating figures in American political life, a politician who played a hugely significant role in shaping American history and its way of life for generations.

Goodwin does a marvelous job developing the story of Lincoln’s life and circumstances, starting from his impoverished upbringing in rural Kentucky to his career as a circuit lawyer in Illinois to his eventual election to public office and the Presidency. But it’s Lincoln’s term as President that provides the most compelling aspects of this book, a period when competing political factions were at work leading up to, and during, the Civil War.

In these pages, Lincoln is presented as a compassionate, rational, well-spoken and eminently likable man, a political aspirant who appears awkward and fumbling at times, but whose deep humanity and purity of heart eventually win over skeptics and opponents. He’s a man who holds the highest hopes for himself and his fledgling nation and never loses faith when the going gets rough. As the title suggests, this book also explores the lives of Lincoln’s contemporaries, including his chief political rivals and adversaries, some of whom would go on to become members of his Cabinet and close confidants.

Goodwin demonstrates historical writing at its best, meaning at its most accessible. The tone of this book is formal, straightforward and measured. She draws upon vast resources of personal letters, diaries, correspondence, newspapers reports and government archives to give an almost play-by-play account of Lincoln and the people close to him during this turbulent and divisive period in American life, when slavery and secession threatened to tear the Union apart.

All of the key moments in Lincoln’s life (his election to the Illinois General Assembly, his winning the Presidency, his marriage to Mary Todd, the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, The Gettysburg Cemetery Address) are rendered with a sharp and unbiased eye; these important moments are made all the more riveting with Goodwin’s talent at weaving multiple narratives into the mix.   

Throughout Team of Rivals, I was fascinated by the sheer volume of correspondence among politicians, soldiers, generals, civil leaders and socialites. Everybody was writing letters and keeping diaries and angling to be heard. I was also intrigued by various modes and speed of communication in the mid 19th century. For instance, during Lincoln’s inaugural Presidential address in 1860, it took seven days (via pony express) for a transcript of the address to reach the west coast so that newspapers in California could report on it. To demonstrate how starved people were for information back then, Lincoln would spend countless hours in the Washington telegraph office, anxiously awaiting the latest news from the battlefields.

A final thought about Team of Rivals is how effective Goodwin is at fleshing out Lincoln the man. Abraham Lincoln was a man who loved his family and friends; and who loved his work and his country. He was a man who aspired to the highest principles of human conduct, both in and out of office. At the conclusion of this book, I was reminded of a quote by Aristotle: "Do not listen to those who exhort you to keep to modest human thoughts.  No.  Live, instead, according to the highest thing in you. For small though it may be in power and worth, it is high above the rest."

Lincoln did live modestly and unpretentiously, but his thoughts, ideas and dreams were of a higher order than most. In Team of Rivals, those hopes and dreams – and the man’s great legacy – remain firmly intact and will continue to inspire.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Rolling Stone’s backstage pass to Led Zeppelin

Rolling Stone Collectors Edition
Led Zeppelin, The Ultimate Guide to Their Music & Legend

During the 1970s, Led Zeppelin was the definitive heavy metal group of the 1970s, a band that attained legendary status among its millions of devoted followers (myself included). In this Collectors Edition, Rolling Stone has reached into its archives and chosen a series of feature articles, interviews, photographs and album guides to create a compelling and highly readable tribute.

Although this Edition is primarily aimed at hard-core Led Zeppelin fans, it would appeal to any rock fan (casual or hard-core) interested in knowing about the group’s roots and what contributed to its enormous worldwide success.

For me, Led Zeppelin was always about the music, and less about the band’s often-reported antics and excesses on the road. Whether it was a hard-driving number like “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a melodic ballad like “Thank You” or an audacious experimental piece like “Kashmir,” Zeppelin boldly went where no band had gone before.

In these pages, both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page come across as sensitive, passionate and articulate when discussing their respective musical styles and influences. Here’s Jimmy Page speaking to journalist Cameron Crowe in a RS interview from 1975: 
“The term ‘genius’ gets used far too loosely in rock & roll. When you hear the melodic structures of what classical musicians put together and you compare it to that of a rock & roll record, there’s a hell of a long way rock & roll has to go. There’s a certain standard in classical music that allows the application of the term ‘genius,’ but you’re treading on thin ice if you start applying it to rock & rollers. The way I see it, rock & roll is folk music. Street music. It isn’t taught in school. It has to be picked up. You don’t find geniuses in street musicians, but that doesn’t mean to say you can’t be really good. You get as much out of rock & roll artistically as you put into it. There’s nobody who can teach you. You’re on your own, and that’s what I find so fascinating about it.”
For Led Zeppelin, it was all about the musical innovation and following their bliss, at least in the recording studio and during their live performances. This was no pop band intent on repeating formulaic tunes with every new album. Rather, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham and John Paul Jones were virtuoso performers who wanted to reinvent themselves all the time; they seem not to have cared about achieving top 40 status on any playlist (indeed, the band’s most famous song, Stairway to Heaven, was never released as a single). 

For Zeppelin fans, it was about immersing yourself in the experience: listening to “Zeppelin IV” or “Physical Graffiti” in a friend’s basement or in the car. The music was bold, rapacious, rebellious, sexual and subversive. If you were listening to Zeppelin, you were probably engaging in other recreational pursuits that parents disapproved of. Zeppelin spoke to a generation that wasn't ready to cut its hair and punch a clock. The band had attitude and the talent to back it up, and that was a large part of its appeal. Zep was going to do things its way, and to hell with what anybody thought.

For those young enough to have enjoyed Led Zeppelin during the band’s prime, this Collectors Edition will evoke memories of time spent listening to a band that became synonymous with the 1970s counter-culture. For those who weren’t around back then, the publication will provide a thrilling snapshot of the life and times of one of the most creative, versatile and influential rock bands of all time.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Henry Miller’s tale of soulful redemption

The Colossus of Maroussi, a travelogue by Henry Miller (originally published in 1941), Penguin Books.

If ever a book sprang fourth impulsively and viscerally from an author’s imagination, it was The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller (1891 – 1980). This rambling, discursive travelogue describes a brief holiday the author took to Greece in the months leading up to the Second World War.

Although much of The Colossus is imaginative, the object of Miller’s escapades is deeply rooted in Greece’s past. He visits Corfu, Crete, Corinth, Delphi, the Acropolis and other mythic places throughout the Greek Isles, and describes these hallowed grounds with humility and awe.

With Miller, if something or someone captures his imagination, he will spend several paragraphs (or pages) describing the object of his affection. Early on in his travels, the author is introduced to a Renaissance man named Katsimbalis (for whom this book is dedicated) and he is immediately smitten. Miller writes:
“…I listened spellbound, enchanted by every phrase he let drop. I saw that he was made for the monologue, like Cendrars, like Moricand the astrologer. I like the monologue even more than the duet, when it is good. It’s like watching a man write a book expressly for you: he writes it, reads it aloud, acts it, revises it, savours it, enjoys it, enjoys your enjoyment of it, and then tears up and throws it to the winds.”
Miller has said that Colossus was his favourite book to write. If I had to guess why, it’s probably because he imposed no limitations on his subject matter. Although the book’s tone is quite confessional, Miller combines the fiery eloquence of a preacher with the solemn revelations of a monk. His language is colourful, luminous and riveting. In his journey, and in the re-telling of it, Miller gives his imagination free reign to wander down abandoned roads and pathways in search of enlightenment and beauty.

For Miller, this journey was a kind of soulful redemption, as well as a personal indictment against the world powers that were girding for war, against big corporations that had co-opted man’s soul in the pursuit of profits, and against the many false Gods, religions and edifices that man has chosen to blindly worship.

In Colossus, Miller is attempting to find his inner self. He is a man desperately trying to understand the world around him and figure out his place in that world. In seeking answers to life’s big questions, it’s interesting that he chose to focus on Greece, a diminished power on the world stage, a country that lives more in myth and legend than it does in the modern world. 

But in casting his gaze on small places and people, Miller arrives at some big truths. Near the end of his tale, Miller sums up what he has learned while in Greece:
“I became deflated, restored to proper human proportions, ready to accept my lot and prepared to give of all that I have received…I give this record of my journey not as a contribution to human knowledge, because my knowledge is small and of little account, but as a contribution to human experience.” 
My final take on The Colossus of Maroussi is that it's a wildly entertaining tale that belongs in the pantheon of great travel literature.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Nora Ephron – A Writer Worth Remembering

Nora Ephron is one of those writers who I've known about for years and yet I’ve never got around to reading – until recently, that is, when I breezed through her final essay collection, entitled I Remember Nothing. When I say breeze, I mean breeze, as I finished the book in less than two hours and was left wanting more.

Ephron is known primarily as a screenwriter who wrote such popular films as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Julie and Julia, and others. She got her start in the writing business working as a journalist at Newsweek and the New York Post

In I Remember Nothing, Ephron recounts a series of anecdotes about her life and career. Her writing style is witty, intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny (her humour is quite self-deprecating). She is one of those writers who could, and did, transform the sad and tragic elements of her life into cinematic drama, often into comedy.

In this slim collection, Ephron has plenty to say about the aging process, and the deterioration of the mind and body once a person hits a certain age. At 69, she finds herself forgetting people’s names at parties, lamenting the breakdown of specific body parts, and fearing more of the same in the years ahead (sadly, Ephron passed away on June 26, 2012.)

In I Remember Nothing, Ephron takes on other subjects with humour and empathy, including computer games, being addicted to computer games, inheritance, professional failure, Christmas dinners, meat loaf, and going to the movies. I particularly enjoyed this observation about divorce:
"Of course, there are good divorces, where everything is civil, even friendly. Child support payments arrive. Visitations take place on schedule. Your ex-husband rings the doorbell and says on the other side of the threshold; he never walks in without knocking and helps himself to the coffee. In my next life I must get one of those divorces." 
My feeling at the end of I Remember Nothing is that I wish it contained more stories, more anecdotes, and more commentary on life. But there are other essay collections by Nora Ephron, and I will eagerly seek them out because she is worth reading, and worth remembering.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Hell of a Woman is a hell of a ride

A Hell of a Woman, a novel by Jim Thompson (originally published in 1954)
Reprinted by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition (1984)

Jim Thompson (1906 – 1977) is a suspense writer who produced his best work during a prolific period between 1952 and 1955. Among the stories written during that time was A Hell of a Woman, which contains all of the classic noir elements of a Thompson novel: a sociopath narrator, plenty of hairpin plot turns, coarse language and the seedy underbelly of American life after World War II.

Part of the joy of a Jim Thompson novel is the rapid plot turns, and the language, which is harsh and crude. In A Hell of a Woman, Frank Dillon is a down-on-his-luck, door-to-door salesman during the 50s who plans to rescue a beautiful young woman from the clutches of her elderly aunt and steal $100,000 from the older woman. Frank’s internal dialogue is like a roller coaster ride of unfiltered thoughts. Here is Frank's initial description of the elderly aunt:
“The door flew open while I was still beating on it. I took one look around at this dame and moved back fast. It wasn’t the young one, the haunted-looking babe I’d seen peering through the curtains. This was an old biddy with a beak like a hawk and close-set, mean little eyes. She was about seventy – I don’t know how anyone could have got that ugly in less than seventy years – but she looked plenty hale and hearty. She was carrying a heavy cane, and I got the impression that she was all ready to use it. On me.” 
A Hell of a Woman is a wild romp of a story that has more twists and turns than a demolition derby, and is full of nasty surprises. You’ll often find yourself laughing out loud as Frank’s hapless scheme unravels with horrific and deadly consequences.

If A Hell of A Woman is your first introduction to Jim Thompson, you won’t be disappointed. Other Thompson novels that I’ve read (and recommend) include: The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, Savage Night and The Grifters.

Monday, September 3, 2012

An absorbing memoir by Gore Vidal

Point to Point Navigation by Gore Vidal
Published in 2006, Vintage Books (A Division of Random House, Inc.)

In Gore Vidal’s second memoir, Point to Point Navigation, the late playwright Tennessee Williams is quoted in a letter to a friend commenting on Vidal’s third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948). Says Williams: “There is not really a distinguished line in the book and yet a great deal of it has a curious life-like quality.”

This sentence could not more accurately sum up my impression of Vidal’s Point to Point Navigation, a disjointed and uneven memoir that could have benefited from a bit more planning and editing, but whose journey is completely absorbing. The book is, at times, acerbic, gossipy, erratic and discursive, but it’s vintage Vidal.

Throughout his long and productive life as a novelist, essayist, and a screenwriter for stage, TV and film, Vidal was a dedicated self-promoter who never shied away from cameras or controversy. He understood the power of media and used it extensively to promote his views about history, politics, academia, sexuality and religion.

Vidal also understood the power of celebrity in our star-obsessed culture, and in Point to Point Navigation, he serves up a glittering tapestry of famous people whom he knew and befriended throughout his life, including Truman Capote, Greta Garbo, Rudolph Nureyev, Paul Newman, Tennessee Williams, the Kennedys, Johnny Carson and Francis Ford Coppola.

Throughout the writing of Point to Point Navigation, Vidal must have been aware that his time was running out (he died on July 31, 2012). A year prior to starting this memoir, he had lost his long-time partner, Howard Austen, to cancer. The pain of that loss, combined with a lingering sense of his own mortality, gives the book a sense of gloominess and poignancy. Interestingly, many of his recollections about famous people are focused on, or near, the end of their lives as well.

Is this a book for everyone? No. If you are acquainted with Gore Vidal’s work (particularly his historical novels or his essays), then I would recommend Point to Point Navigation, but read Palimpsest first. This slim memoir should not serve as an entry-point, but rather as complement to, Vidal’s many works of fiction and non-fiction.

It’s not hyperbole to declare that Vidal was one of the finest prose stylists of the 20th century, and for the true Vidal aficionado, this book is a fitting end to a remarkable literary career that spanned six and a half decades. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Touching The Void offers plenty of white-knuckle thrills

Touching The Void, originally published in 1988 (Jonathan Cape).

In 1985, two young British adventurers (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) set out to climb one of the toughest mountains in South America – the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Touching The Void is Joe Simpson's version of their attempt to scale the west face of the mountain, which had never been done before. Their story has become a classic of mountaineering literature. It's a powerful tale of ambition, friendship, and the indomitable will to survive in the face of impossible odds. Simpson's writing is clear, focused and non-technical, and his rich eye for detail will leave readers on the edge of their seats.

Two thumbs way up!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Six Pixels of Separation: Everyone Is Connected. Connect Your Business To Everyone

If you have ever asked yourself how digital marketing and social media can impact your life and career, then get a copy of Six Pixels of Separation and read it.

Although the book was published in 2009, most of the strategies Joel espouses in Six Pixels of Separation are still relevant today. Using a plain, non-technical writing style, Joel describes the many online tools and platforms that companies could be taking advantage of to improve their businesses and fortunes.

One of the recurring themes in this book is the importance of developing a digital marketing strategy and following through with it. Patience is indeed a virtue in the online world. Too many participants of social media give up after they realize it requires some work and effort to remain actively engaged with their online communities.

Joel shares personal anecdotes about his own business career, where writing blog posts, recording podcasts and speaking at industry events have paid off handsomely for him. Anyone or any business, he suggests, can do the same.

I particularly liked this quote from the book: "As we build our personal brands through digital channels, it is incumbent on us to know the types of people who benefit with our brand and what we are doing and, on a daily basis, to engage with those types of people."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Custodian of Paradise

The Custodian of Paradise (Vintage Canada, 2006) is a sequel to Wayne Johnston’s masterful The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Set mostly in St. John’s, Newfoundland in the early decades of the 20th century, the story opens with Sheilagh Fielding, the story’s narrator, preparing to travel alone to a remote island off the coast of Newfoundland.

What would bring a woman to seek isolation in such an uninhabited place? As is soon revealed, Fielding needs a form of seclusion to reflect on her life and write her story, a story that is heavily weighted in sadness, tragedy and misfortune. But in Wayne Johnston’s deft hands, that sadness and tragedy are beautifully and expertly told; the most wrenching moments never become oppressive or maudlin.

Without giving away too much away, the 14 year-old Fielding is traumatized by an incident that will ultimately shape the rest of her life. With a six foot one frame, a disfigured foot, and a penchant for drink, Sheilagh Fielding is regarded by others as something of a freak – unwanted, unloved, scorned and ridiculed at every turn. Her most powerful weapon in fighting against the cruelty of others and as an outlet for her pain is a ferocious intellect, a razor sharp wit and an extraordinary talent for writing.

At an early age, Fielding finds an outlet for her pain and daemons as a newspaper columnist, where she succeeds in chiding, poking and mocking the establishment in all its hypocrisy, intolerance, bigotry and pettiness. Where a scrappy and ambitious Joey Smallwood (former Premier of Newfoundland) was the central figure and narrator in Colony, in this tale he appears at different points in Fielding’s life, always ready to verbally spar with his worthy adversary. The witty repartee between Smallwood and Fielding almost jumps off the pages.

The novel weaves back and forth between the present (on Loreburn island) and the past through personal recollections, letters and diary entries. Johnston does a superb job piecing Fielding’s story together, in language that is rich in detail and pleasing to the ear, with just enough suspense thrown in to keep readers engaged.

One of the central themes is the idea of revenge and the impact it has on those who aim to inflict it, and those unfortunate enough to be caught up in its collateral damage. In one of the letters written by a secret “Provider,” whose identity is withheld until the end, there are these poignant lines: “There comes a point when spite is an end in itself. When bitterness somehow sustains and enervates the soul.”

The Custodian of Paradise contains many such nuggets. This is one of those novels whose voices, images and drama will stay with me for a long time – and it deserves to be read.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

An enthralling book: A Confederacy of Dunces

The online magazine/blog Boing Boing has asked friends to write an essay about a book that was enthralling, a book that “captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them.”

Though Boing Boing’s invitation wasn’t extended to me, I couldn’t resist the temptation to recount one of the best books I’ve ever read, a book that was nothing less than enthralling: “A Confederacy of Dunces,” the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by John Kennedy Toole.

I discovered a paperback version of the novel quite by accident in an antique store when I first arrived in London, England in 1984. After the opening paragraph, I was hooked:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Ignatius J. Reilly is a lumbering, slothful, 300-pound young man who lives with his widowed mother in New Orleans. Due to circumstances, he must find a job, and the novel tells the story of his failed and often hilarious attempts to find gainful employment and to understand his life.

An educated man, Reilly makes clear in his conversations, letters and journal entries that he disdains the contemporary world of pop culture and its “lack of theology and geometry.” He complains about everything and everyone. He bounces from one improbable situation to the next, encountering characters who are loveable and unforgettable, especially his so-called love interest, Myrna Minkoff, whom Reilly refers to as “the minx.”

I spent an entire day holed up inside a hotel room reading “Confederacy,” while I should have been out looking for work and a place to live. It was a completely indulgent activity to shirk more pressing obligations, and yet something about Ignatius J. Reilly’s flawed character, his wildly distorted worldview and his comic misadventures struck a nerve and kept me glued to the pages.

Though I’ve only read “Confederacy” once, the novel has had a lasting impact on me. Perhaps it’s time (some 30 years later) to get reacquainted with Ignatius J. Reilly and to see how this extraordinary tale holds up after all these years.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mike Horn’s Arctic adventure is a study in courage and willpower

Mike Horn has been described as a modern-day adventurer who continuously tests the limits of human endurance. After reading his book, Conquering the Impossible, My 12,000 Mile Journey Around the Arctic Circle (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007), it’s hard to disagree.

On August 4, 2002, Horn set out from North Cape, Norway, in a custom sail boat and headed west towards Greenland. His solo journey around the Arctic Circle took him 27 months to complete. Conquering The Impossible is a gripping, first-person account of the many challenges and triumphs that he encountered along the way.

Throughout his trip, Horn battled severe windstorms, sub-zero temperatures (minus 98 degrees at one point), physical exhaustion, equipment failure, hypothermia, ice flows, polar bears, grizzly bears, Russian bureaucracy, complete darkness for weeks on end, and many other obstacles.

Horn’s willpower is almost unimaginable. He attacked problems with a rigorous determination and a stubborn refusal to give up. Whenever possible, he sought out the wisdom of native peoples in the north who knew the lay of the land. Every stage of his trip had to be planned with precision, to increase his odds of survival.

His food, provisions and equipment had to be hauled by sleigh, kayak and sailboat. To train for this type of hike around the Arctic Circle, Horn did a solo trek to the North Pole, which was cut short due to frostbite.
After reading Conquering the Impossible, it makes our own mental and physical exertions seem pale in comparison. At one point, after having hiked for an entire day through a storm, Horn realized that the wind was blowing too hard to set up his tent. So he kept marching through the darkness – for 48 more hours!

Some may wonder why Horn would dedicate so much time and energy to achieve such a monumental goal, given that he is married and has two children. The risks that he faced on this trip were quite real; several times he came close to perishing on the icy tundra and under the Arctic waves.

But Horn is different than the rest of us. He is driven to succeed on a larger scale than most of us weekend warriors. He carves out huge, audacious goals and throws himself into achieving them with a supreme confidence and a total lack of inhibition.

In addition to being a modern day adventure, Conquering The Impossible also reads as a guide for setting and achieving goals. For this adventure to succeed, Horn had to prepare himself and his body with strenuous training. He had to acquire the right sponsors and ensure that he had the right clothing and equipment (some equipment had to be custom made, because nobody had ever subjected it to such extreme conditions). He had to assemble a team that he could depend on to replenish his supplies and to assist with communications and logistics, from start to finish. 

Conquering The Impossible is an inspiring story that should provoke readers to aim higher and stretch farther than they are accustomed to. Many self-help books promise to change or improve our lives; few actually do. This book will entirely change your mind about what is possible with the right attitude and a single-minded determination.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Learning how to unplug

Book Review: Hamlet’s Blackberry – A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age

In this thoughtful and well-researched book, William Powers argues that online technologies and mobile devices have improved our lives immeasurably, but they have also come at a price. He points out that with our always-on connectivity, we have become disconnected from family, friends and neighbours, and lost touch with ourselves.

He writes: “The question now is how truly individual – as in bold, original, unique – you can be if you never step back from the crowd. When we think and write from within our busyness, surrounded by countless other voices, too often the result is reactive, derivative, short-shelf-life stuff.”

Powers examines great thinkers of the past who managed to avoid the distractions of their age in order to produce their best work. He suggests that by following their leads, we can restore some balance in our lives so that the technologies can enhance, rather than enslave, us.

The last couple of chapters of Hamlet’s BlackBerry are somewhat repetitive in their arguments, but Powers’ central message – learning to unplug can be healthy for your body, mind and spirit – is a powerful one that needs to be heard. Indeed, we can all benefit from occasionally walking away from our screens.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath still a classic seven decades on

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck tells the story of the Joad family of Oklahoma, who are forced to abandon their home due to crop failures and technological advancements during the Great Depression. The family buys a battered old Hudson Super Six and heads west to the so-called Promised Land of California, hoping to find work and to rebuild their shattered lives.

Along the way, the Joads encounter one hardship after another, along with countless humiliations, as they try to cope with the reality of having no work, no food and no money. Steinbeck shows us (with an unflinching eye) what it must have been like for thousands of families, whose worldly possessions have been reduced to the tattered clothing on their backs and occasional scraps of foods.

Although the Joads have few possessions, and despite a continuous stream of misfortune and bad luck, there is a sparkle of hope and humanity that shines through on almost every page. This is a family that has been kicked and beaten and knocked down, and yet they manage to maintain their dignity.

Reading The Grapes of Wrath in 2012 gives one pause to reflect on how the standards of living in the West have improved over the last seven decades. Compared to the Joads’ struggles and challenges, our own don’t seem quite so bad. It also speaks to a generation of Americans and Europeans who now find themselves impoverished and out of work, wondering how their lives will ever get back on track. I’m sure there are people reading this novel today who recognize the stark parallels between the fear and desperation felt by the Joad family and their own fear and desperation.

The Grapes of Wrath is not an easy read, and it will leave many readers feeling uncomfortable. Steinbeck wanted to shock readers into knowing and understanding the plight of the downtrodden during a particularly difficult period in American history, and he succeeded with exceptional brilliance.