"Nineteen Eighty-Four"

Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

This being 2012, one wonders why I would choose to read "1984" now, it being a futuristic novel about a time that has come and gone without seeming very, well..., futuristic. Good question, but one without a very good answer. It was written before I was born so I missed whatever hoopla might have surrounded its release. In the 60's when I was in High School, it was still being talked about, but by then 1984 wasn't far enough in the future to grab my interest. Then the actual year 1984 went by and I forgot the book existed. Two years ago when I began this blog, I started seeing it mentioned again, that and dozens of other titles I thought I should have read a long time ago but never did.  So I made a list - a list of books I feel bad about never having read and I've set myself the task of finishing the list before I "shuffle off this mortal coil". We'll see.

So here I am with a beat-up paperback copy of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" in my hand. I've read it and found it fairly interesting. Some of it seems ridiculous and over-the-top, but other parts touched a nerve and were too familiar in their portrayal of how government takes control, with hardly an opposing voice, over everything we do.

The main character is Winston Smith. He works for the "Ministry of Truth", where truth is defined by the government , and changes according to what they want you to believe today. Winston works with many others "in 3000 rooms above ground" continually rewriting history so that it says what "The Party" wants it to say.

His life, and everyone else's is monitored with telescreens and microphones and the "Thought Police". Everything he does, everywhere he goes, who he speaks to and what he says is all known as soon as he does it. He has lived this way long enough to be fully indoctrinated into accepting that this is how it must be, that there is no way to change it, and yet he secretly wonders what life was like before it was like this.  He sometimes has flashes of memory - of faces, sounds and smells from another way of  life. He's curious, a seriously dangerous state to be in.

In the midst of his drab existence an unheard of thing happens. A young woman slips a note to him that says simply "I love you." The remainder of the story is about how he responds, how they together try to live life out of "The Party's" reach, and how that works out for them. This  book fits into the category that is now called "dystopian", so I don't think I'll be spoiling it for anybody when I say to not expect any happy endings.

All in all I'm glad I read it. There are endless references to it in other books that I'll be able to appreciate now, and I get to cross it off my "guilt list". I can't say I liked it; it's dark and serious and horrifying. I do think it's worth reading though, even if you read it as I did - hoping it would soon be over so it would stop making me so uncomfortable. No pain, no gain, I guess, and I find myself a little more aware and a little more protective of the freedoms I enjoy than I was before "Nineteen Eighty-Four".

"The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams"

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

Wayne Johnston is a wonderful writer. I read "The Navigator Of New York" a few years ago and happily had the same excellent reading experience this time. These books aren't the sort you just have to keep reading to see what happens next. I had no problem setting this one aside to read our Book Club selection then picking it up where I had left off. That doesn't sound like much of a recommendation but a sizzling plot isn't everything. These books have good stories, but the thing that stands out to me is that they are simply darn pleasurable reading. If the book never ended I'd go on reading it forever because it's so enjoyable, like sitting in your favourite chair or wearing comfortable old shoes.

The story here is a fictional account of Joey Smallwood's life. For those too young to remember, he was the Newfoundlander who successfully pushed for Newfoundland to join Canadian Confederation in 1949 and who then became it's first Premier. I don't really understand how fiction and the lives of real people mix in a book. I'm unsure what parts we are supposed to believe and what to call fiction. I don't even understand how it's legal to make up stories about actual people. Does calling it fiction allow a writer to say whatever he wants? I don't know. I just know I liked it.

In this account, Smallwood's story is not at all what you'd expect in the life of a prominent politician. His family, education, personal life and career are colourful and make for a unique and sometimes strange tale.  He is socially inept and a complete dud when it comes to personal relationships, but politically, he's driven by an unstoppable will. When he wants something, he'll do whatever it takes to get it and he won't allow anything or anyone to keep him from it.

For me the main character in this story is Newfoundland itself, and from the title I think that's what the author intended. I grew up with Newfoundland being a province of Canada and am slightly embarrassed to say I never gave a thought to what it was before that. I found reading about pre-confederation Newfoundland nothing short of fascinating; I couldn't get enough of it. By the end of the book I was convinced that joining Confederation was a bad idea for Newfoundland - and I'm Canadian!

You'll fall in love with the harsh, beautiful land, the wild, unpredictable weather and the people, from the quirky, competitive city-dwellers to the stalwart souls living in the outports, who live only on what they can provide for themselves surrounded by ice, water and rock. I don't think I've ever read of harsher living or hardier people. 

The authour creates for us some refreshingly honest word-pictures of life on this unique island. He talks about their "...perverse pride in our ability to do anything, even fail, on so grand a scale. Whether our distinguishing national trait was resourcefulness or laziness, ineptitude or competence, honesty or corruptibility, did not seem to matter as long as we were famous for it, as long as we were acknowledged as being unmatched in the world for something." and about standing on a boat offshore "...regarding the somehow oppressively spectacular scenery, the houses in their drearily bright and cheerful, state-of-the-universe-denying colours."  If ever you should see the bright rainbow colours of coastal village houses, you will know exactly what he means by "state-of-the-universe-denying colours" (one of the best descriptions I've ever heard). They signal such optimism, such cheer in what seems like pretty cheerless living conditions. 

He writes another passage that gives us some idea of  the isolation of residents in the more remote locations: "What I had not realized was how cut off from the world in both space and time these people were. Most of them did not understand or even have a word for the concept of government." They "had only the most rudimentary understanding of what a country was. And at the same time were destitute beyond anything I imagined when I first set out."

I could go on forever but I'll spare you. Just read the book and let Newfoundland seep into your imagination, then I wish you the best of luck trying to resist the temptation to go and see with your own eyes what Wayne Johnston has described so perfectly. 

"The Way Is Made By Walking"

The Way Is Made By Walking by Paul Boers

The Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James) is a 500 mile pilgrimage beginning in various places but all ending in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Saint James is the patron saint of Spain and relics belonging to him are said to be held in a cathedral there.  Pilgrims end their walk at the cathedral, where they receive a certificate confirming they have completed the pilgrimage. This particular path has been trekked for hundred of years for spiritual reasons but is now becoming popular for historical and cultural reasons. This is Paul Boers story of his experience on the Camino.

Boers says he had "many reasons for this trip: meeting pilgrims, seeing a new country from ground level, reflecting on church history, practicing a classic spiritual discipline, developing my appreciation for walking and challenging myself physically." He met people along the way who were there for many of those and other reasons, people of all ages from different cultures and all walks of life. He includes a few pictures of fellow pilgrims and spots along the Camino that make the experience a little more real for the reader.

Although I find the topic fascinating, I didn't enjoy the writing. It felt like the authour was holding us at arm's length the whole time and the book reads more like a text on spiritual pilgrimage than a personal story. He seems more comfortable in the role of teacher than storyteller, which makes sense when you consider his position as Professor of Pastoral Theology. I was just hoping for more of the story and maybe a little less theology.

There's a line where he's talking about chatting with another walker as they were washing their clothes at the end of the day and he says they were "launching into a discussion of Theresa of Avila and then moving quickly into Christian perspectives on peace and justice issues." It's that formal, almost pompous, style of expressing himself that kept me from feeling like I could connect with him. He does say that he is an introvert, and suffering from the same affliction I do understand the tendency to remoteness. I just don't like it in this book.

Boers is a great advocate for the out of doors and for spiritual retreat, two things we angst-ridden introverts crave - fresh air to clear our heads and silence, blessed silence, so we can think. He writes about the church once more taking up the practice of pilgrimage as a spiritual discipline, stating that this once common practice has been lost for a long time and is only now being reclaimed. I understand the historical and spiritual significance, but I don't see where pilgrimage is taught in the Bible as a discipline. It's a great exercise in lots of ways and it's something I would love to do because any time spent outdoors and walking forces you to slow down and gives you time and space to reason and re-evaluate. It can be an intensely spiritual experience if you are focused on and listening to God, but I can't agree that it's a discipline Jesus taught.

A premise of Boers' that gave me serious pause is his extreme view of Scripture and the outdoors. He says "It is not only that we cannot read and understand Scripture inside, I suspect that even our praise of God is hampered there." Sure, there are benefits to reading your Bible in the open air, but that's not what he says. He says "...we cannot read and understand Scripture inside..." Does he even realize what he's saying? Are the Bibles in prisons, nursing homes, hospitals and hotel rooms ineffective? What about those in churches all over the world on Sunday mornings? Boers himself, is a Pastor of Theology who most likely uses Scripture in the classroom. Why, if it cannot be understood inside? I've read that one line over and over to see if I was reading it wrong, but I don't think I am. Such a careless statement writes off a lot of people - people who don't have Mr. Boers' options in life. Even more alarming, it denies the power of the Word of God itself. The Word is "living and active", whether you are blessed with the freedom to step into the great outdoors whenever you choose or you read it confined to a small room in an institution.

I don't want to be unfair. I know the authour means to be helpful and he has some real wisdom to offer, things like: "Ultimately, pilgrimage bears fruit at home where it overlaps and infiltrates and alters one's life." and "If a few words lighten someone's journey, then I want to offer such a blessing. Small talk is not necessarily trivial." There's real truth there. There's also a lot of good historical and theological information in this book and it was a pretty good introduction to the Camino de Santiago.

I'd still like to read a more personal pilgrimage story and I will try another one soon. There are quite a few books out there now that the Camino is becoming well known and popular again. I did watch the movie "The Way" with Charlie Sheen, another personal story of pilgrimage along the Camino, and it was a pretty good story, but it could never compare to reading a good book.