Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Cannonball Read #13: The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

In her debut novel, The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce tells a story of regret, redemption and forgiveness. Harold Fry is a pensioner, living in Southern England. He spends his days quietly and without fuss, barely exchanging any words with his wife, Maureen. One day, Harold receives a letter from Queenie, an old colleague and friend, with whom he hasn't spoken in many years. Queenie is in a hospice in Northern England, dying of cancer, and she is just writing to say goodbye. Harold writes a quick reply and he's on his way to the post office to send it, when he suddenly gets the urge to keep walking. He needs to keep walking, believing that he can keep Queenie alive as long as he continues his walk towards her. This is the story of his journey.

I am a long distance runner. The thing that I find most exciting about running far is that I get to see new places. That is why I was immediately fascinated by the premise of this book. Harold's journey, especially in the first 50 or so pages of the book, capture the powerful wanderlust which I feel when I travel on foot. I could just picture myself running along those same roads, surrounded by flowers and lush green fields, as Harold walked. I could easily identify with his desire to keep going.

But this book is ultimately not about wanderlust. It's about life, and death, and how sometimes you're alive even though you don't actually live your life. It is about overcoming personal obstacles and fears. It is a simple book, on the surface. Joyce's writing is easy to read and keeps the reader turning the pages. Still, once the book is finished, the emotional impact can be very deep indeed, the simplicity of the book an illusion. Because underneath his polite exterior and his quaint ”Englishness” lie Harold's repressed feelings.

This bitter-sweet tale sags a bit in the middle and almost runs out of steam, but perhaps it is meant to feel that way. After all, it is a huge undertaking of a journey, and Harold is bound to get tired at some point. But, if you stick with it to the end, it will not disappoint you. The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the kind of book that grows on you the more you think about it, and you are likely to think about it a lot.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Cannonball read #12: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

What a strange book this was. What a difficult task to review it. Its structure resembles more a collection of short stories rather than a novel, which makes it way too easy to get stuck on the parts and miss the whole, but there is a red thread through it, thin as it may be.

The Martian Chronicles was written in 1945, around the time World War II was coming to an explosive end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The year is 1999. As more and more people flee our planet to start a new life on Mars, to escape such things as slavery and bureaucracy, Mars puts up resistance. Strange things start happening. But that doesn't stop mankind from colonising the red planet.

The red thread that I mentioned above, the common denominator of all the episodes described in this book, is the uneasy feeling that nothing is how it is supposed to be. My first encounter with Bradbury was the excellent, superbly creepy Something wicked this way comes. I read it as a teenager, and, even though I no longer remember the details of the book, I remember very well how unnerving it was, how deeply disturbing. While The Martian Chronicles isn't quite the waking nightmare that book was, it has a dark, foreboding character that never lets you forget who wrote it.

I found it hard to get past the episodic nature of the book. All characters were bound by the same history, were facing the same threat, were heading towards the same future and inhabited the same planet. Yet, with only a handful of pages dedicated to each of them, there was no room for character development. I felt detached, almost indifferent to the fate of these pioneers.

Yet, the poetry. The poetry! Bradbury writes beautifully, his descriptions casting spells on the reader. His storytelling is as vivid as his imagination, his world -although at first dated when seen through our modern eyes- believable. His message is as important and relevant today as it was in 1945. All in all, The Martian Chronicles is not one of my favourite books but it did make me want to read more Bradbury.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Love affair

I have been fighting a cold the last few days. I haven't been able to train at all. In fact, even walking to work has felt like a struggle on a couple of occasions. As my mood deteriorated in step with every sunny day wasted lying on the sofa building a tissue pyramid on the coffee table that would turn Egyptians green with envy, I started feeling resentment towards running. Why does it treat me this way, causing me several injuries per year, when I love it so much? I am sick of its antics, its blatant disregard for my well-being! Surely, if I had any self respect I'd kick it out the door and change the locks.

Then, this morning, I spent my break at work reading an article in the latest ”Turist” magazine about running in the mountains. I remembered the sense of wonder and awe I felt while running in Hemavan, rolling down the Kungsleden trail, surrounded by nothing but majestic snow-clad mountain tops and the absence of time. I thought about my running friend N, with whom I've been planning a running holiday in the mountains this summer. My heart started waking up from the deep slumber it's been in the last few weeks and wrote running a love poem.

When I got home, I put on my VFF for the first time in 2-3 months. I ran with the wind on my back, under a spring sun, aiming to get as much mud on my shoes as possible. Just before I got home after this short run, a cloud directly over my head started dusting minuscule snowflakes all around me, at the same time as the sun warmed my face. 

Running, I know we've had some hard times. Things haven't always been easy between us. But I still love you.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Cannonball Read #11: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Does God exist? This is the question that is central in Richard Dawkins' ”The God delusion”. Dawkins is an atheist and he thinks that you should be, too. That is why he provides arguments in favour of a scientific explanation for our existence and deconstructs the arguments against it and in favour of a creationist theory.

My parents are not religious, but my grandmother is a devout Christian. We have always been close, and some of her beliefs rubbed off on me when I was growing up. She took me to church a few times, told me stories out of the Bible, spoke of the importance of prayer. Religion had such an impact on me during my early formative years that I became superstitious about it. Was the headache I was experiencing a punishment from God, because I had forgotten to pray? But then, when I turned 13, I started questioning things. Why didn't God listen to my prayers? Why was there so much suffering in the world, if God was benevolent? All the answers religion provided seemed very unsatisfactory to my curious mind.

Since then, I have been calling myself an agnostic. There are things in the world that I don't understand, that no one understands, that have stopped me from becoming a full-blown atheist. Dawkins book gave me a firm nudge in that direction. Just because we can't understand these things now, with the amount of knowledge that we have today, doesn't mean that we will never understand them, and it certainly doesn't prove that God exists. This is just one of various ”myths” about religion that Dawkins debunks.

The God delusion is an intellectual and philosophical exercise on the existence of God. Being prone to philosophical musings myself from time to time, I found it immensely enjoyable. It touches on many religion-related subjects, psychological and evolutionary explanations why it exists, the reason why it is so wide-spread, etc. It was informational, both about the history of religion but even about the influence it currently has in other countries (mainly in the USA, but Dawkins doesn't discriminate against any religion. He thinks they're all unnecessary, and in many cases even dangerous). It was thought-provoking, even thought-altering.

If there is anything that I disliked about the book, it was his badly disguised contempt for religious people. This is particularly evident in the first half of the book. He makes snide remarks against believers, and that, coupled with the fact that he delves into scientific facts without adequately explaining what some of the terms mean (”memes”, for example, or even natural selection for that matter), make it seem like the whole enterprise is nothing more than Dawkins winking at the educated ones among us (who are, of course, also atheists. Dawkins seems to imply that you can't be highly educated without being an atheist).

If Dawkins is out to convert (sorry about the choice of word) believers to atheism, he's certainly not going to succeed by presenting them as small-minded fools. He states right from the beginning of the book that he doesn't think that religion should be dealt with with kid gloves (and I agree) but we should make the distinction between religion and its followers. You don't want to respect religion? Go ahead, disrespect it! But you shouldn't disrespect people just because they are religious.

I would recommend this book to everyone, religious people and atheists alike. The latter will enjoy adding arrows to their conversational quiver, the former might enjoy the challenge of thinking outside the box. But, at the end of the day, the only people Dawkins will probably manage to convince will be people like myself: agnostics.