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.