Sunday, July 24, 2011

Beyond Belfast by Will Ferguson


The people of the Ulster Province in Northern Ireland are pretty pragmatic about their climate. In fact, they have a saying: "There is no such thing as bad weather. Only the wrong clothes." I suspect Will Ferguson would not only disagree with that statement but he'd probably try to strangle the next well meaning Irishman to offer it.

Beyond Belfast is the chronicle of his 560-mile hike around Northern Ireland following the longest way-marked trail in the United Kingdom. The Ulster Way as he experiences it is nothing short of a microcosm for the country it winds through. A beautiful landscape of extremes still groping for identity and waging war on itself. Pubs seem to grow organically from the hills, nourished by the near constant rain. Pretty little sea-side villages loudly proclaim either Catholic or Protestant allegiance where the ruins of Gaelic castles bear witness to atrocities both ancient and recent.

Descriptions of landscape and the quirky characters that inhabit it are wonderful and although they comprise the bulk of the book, they never feel stale or recycled. Ferguson has a great self-deprecating sense of humor which comes in handy as he slops through bogs, races across busy highways, faces down ill-tempered farm dogs and risks "scrotal entanglement" jumping over barbed wire fences.

His off-hand history lessons are spot-on as well. I never felt like I was being force fed dry facts about old rocks and moldy hills. He makes it all feel juicy and relevant. This is a population still living in the long shadow of sectarian violence and Ferguson conveys this with just the right mix of respect and wide-eyed naivety.

The only element that didn't work for me was a sub plot involving family history. Ferguson feels that he has to justify this crazy adventure under the auspices of digging up information on his Grandfather.  This is one of those "it's about the journey, not the destination" type of books, and this cheapened the experience for me a little by giving it the flavor of a quest. Let's be honest, we all started to lose interest in The Lord of The Rings as soon as Frodo and Sam actually got to Mordor. The same applies here. We don't want you to find what you are looking for, Mr. Ferguson, it's more fun to follow you as you get lost in the Sperrin Mountains and tip-toe past wandering bulls.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

That's a Nice Fire You've Got There


Back in June a Dutch group was so offended by the title of a book they have never read they did the only rational thing they could think of. They burned it. Not the whole book, of course, that would be Nazi-flavored madness. They just torched the offensive bits they did read, namely the cover. It was Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes which has been renamed to "Someone Knows My Name" for those word-fearing folks in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

When first hearing about this I flew into a violent, moralistic rage. I yelled obscenities at my dog that would make an Irish dockworker blush. After reading the book last year, I not only felt better educated but more sympathetic to the plight and history of African Americans living in North America. What could possibly be accomplished by burning the cover?!?

Then it occurred to me. Those Freaky-Deaky Dutch were onto something. Burning stuff that offends you feels really good. It's cathartic and provides a medium for making s'mores. The following is a list of things I would like to throw on the Dutch fire of intolerance:

1. The Millennium series by Stieg Larsson - What kind of a name is Stieg anyway?

2. Justin Bieber - For obvious reasons.

3. Dancing With the Stars - The next time I hear a serious conversation about this show, I'm punching everyone within range Right. In. The. Face.

4. Inter-office Memos - Was anything important ever really communicated with one of these?

5. Stephen Spielberg's Money - Please stop paying for other director's crappy movies and make one of your own. People are starting for forget why we are supposed to hold you in such high esteem. Saving Private Ryan was, like 13 years ago.

6. Cell Phones - I'm willing to set telecommunications back twenty years if it means I don't have to watch people fiddle with these stupid things anymore.

7. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare - Just for shock value.

This is not a complete list by any means but I'd better stop there. These kinds of fires have a tendency to get out of hand. Anyone who was hanging around Berlin in 1933 could tell you that.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Stories That Transcend Language


Charlie Boorman is a motorcycle enthusiast who has traveled around the globe. When asked is a recent interview what the most memorable part of his journey was he said it was the realization that people everywhere, regardless of culture, class or country have a lot more in common than most of us think. If we choose to focus on all the things that we share (a lot) rather than the things that separate us (not much), the world might just be a little better off for it.

It is in this worldly spirit of connectedness that Shaun Tan's The Arrival exists. It is a picture book absent of language but full of images that stir ghosts from some long forgotten corner of the mind. The artwork is gorgeous, and the story of a man who is forced to leave his home for a strange and foreign land is not only an immigrant's tale, but the tale of anyone who has ever felt lost and adrift in their own life (I assume pretty much all of us).

The silent movie aesthetic might turn off a few language-obsessed word junkies. The rest of us can just bask in the beauty of it's dim light and experience something unique and wonderful. I think Mr. Boorman would appreciate it. I think you will too.