Summer Reading Revisited

Ben reviews three books: Marilyn Meyers' Through Fire and Sea, John King's Headhunters, and Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's Long Way Round.

By Ben Bull
Published September 09, 2007

One thing I love about the summer is it gives me time to read. Well, that's the theory anyway.

My family and I have spent most of our summers up until now exhausting ourselves trying to relax. A few years ago we tried camping. Molly, our youngest, had just started walking and she really seemed to enjoy the freedom and open spaces that camping provides.

We lost her several times.

A few years later we bought an old pop-up trailer. I spent most of my vacation time fixing it or trying to get the stupid gas pilot to light. This year, for the first time, we decided to be very Canadian and head up to, 'the cottage'.

And so off we set, for a week in Bobcaygeon where, apart from an aborted hike interrupted by a swarm of thirsty mosquitoes, we had a thoroughly relaxing time:

Jack, Annie and Molly - nine, seven and five - standing at the end of the dock with their plastic $15 fishing rods, patiently waiting for a bite (they didn't get one - I think the plastic fish they used as bait may have had something to do with it). Emily, my eldest, listening to her iPod, watching movies and sulking, and Susie, my wife, sleeping.

All of this meant I had the unusual luxury of having time to myself!

So I started to read. By the end of the summer I had managed to knock off a whopping 2 ½ books:

1. Through Fire and Sea - a fascinating account of a young mothers journey from a dull, unfulfilling life on dry land to an inspirational adventure as a missionary at sea.

2. Long Way Round - the written accompaniment to Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman's TV travelogue, which follows the two actor pals as they scoot around the globe on a pair of BMW motorbikes.

2 1/2. Headhunters - a crude Brit-Lit tale of 5 working class lads from London whose sole aims in life are to get drunk and get laid.

Astute readers may have noticed that I counted one of these books as only a half. That's because Headhunters was so boring I had to skip through several pages at a time in order to finish it: More on that later.

I should note, before I start out, that none of these books has much to do with sustainable development, peak oil, the collapse of the American economy or anything fun or exciting like that.

I figure I'll ask Ryan to file it under 'Entertainment' and hope he doesn't notice. He never proofreads anything anyway. Failing that I'll just lie.

Okay, here goes:

Through Fire and Sea (Marilyn Meyers, Rocksalt publishing, 2006)

Marilyn Meyers is an Ontario based mother of three with a deep lifelong yearning to be a missionary. Her true story takes us through her struggle to become of 'good' Christian, a good wife, a good mother, and ultimately a "servant at sea".

Myers is a deeply religious woman and, as such, we'll have to file this book under the 'Religious Literature' section. Normally that would be enough to send me scuttling for the Cooking aisle or the dreaded Reference section but, for some reason, I found myself drawn in by this tale.

For one thing I'd heard a little bit about the excellent charitable organization Meyers eventually clambers aboard: Mercy Ships. And for another, I recalled an article I'd read about her experiences a few years ago in one of the Canadian Dailies.

I knew it was a story worth telling.

Meyers quotes the scripture liberally in her book. She makes no secret of her belief that God is guiding her and her family as they navigate the rocky course through life's surprises, disappointments, uncertainties, happy moments and ultimately to their final destination at sea. Myers recounts her religious awakening throughout the book, an awakening she likens to the moulding, blasting and casting of a new vessel by the 'Master Potter' himself.

There are many new beginnings - and many more dead ends - for Meyers and her family to steer through. There's the harrowing stint as Camp Counselors in Manitoba, the idyllic village life in Seaton, Ontario, the agony of unemployment and visits to the food bank, and the joys and despairs of missionary life aboard the Anastassia, an African bound Hospital Ship operated by the US based Christian charity, Mercy Ships.

Despite the overbearing religious imagery in Myers account I enjoyed this book immensely. The author's earnest account proved to be thoroughly inspiring and refreshingly honest. It seemed to me at times, as I read about her one disastrous life event after another that this poor woman was just about always on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Add to that the author's tendency to absorb the pain of all of those around her, and you find yourself sharing many a poignant experience. But getting back to the whole religiousness of it all, I found the authors tendency to rationalize and explain all of her life's questions through a religious context extremely taxing.

Like the time the family goes house hunting:

Nestled in the sprawling farmlands of Huron County, down a long tree-lined lane sat a century old farmhouse with a typical Ontario bank barn ... I envisioned my children spending long enjoyable hours in the barn ... As we toured the grounds ... my elation grew over the possibility of declaring this place home for our family.

But Meyers and her husband put the purchase off, not because of any financial restraints or contractual quibbles, but because of a verse in the Bible:

"That hopeful morning of our final tour with the realtor I had received a verse from God giving certain direction. It read: "Instead of the thorn bush will grow the pine tree, and instead of the briers the myrtle will grow"". Myers goes back to the house to discover, "a huge grove of tiger lilies, thorn bushes and spruce trees" and the sale is off.

What was frustrating for me, as an agnostic (or is it atheist? Well, anyway, I believe in fairies) is the author's insistence that 'everything happens for a reason' and that all her struggles are 'gifts from God' - little tests to guide her on her way.

It made me wish for a non-Biblical account I could recommend to my friends and family.

But annoyances aside, as I forged ahead I found myself increasingly intrigued by the author's biblical framing of every major life event.

As I drove to London, Ontario and back many times during the summer for work, I began pounding my religious driving companion with never-ending questions:

"Why do religious people abdicate responsibility for their choices?" I would ask, and, "why do they thank God for all their miseries?!"

"You should study theology" my friend suggested, when I wouldn't shut up. "You ask too many questions."

Although it takes us almost half the book before we finally get to the 'pay off' - the journey at sea and the experiences of serving the poor in Africa - the story is worth the wait.

I could quibble about the excessive use of exclamation points (I kept thinking about that Seinfeld episode where Elaine's boss opens the muffin shop ... 'Top of the muffin to you!') and the disjointed feel of the last couple of chapters where we bounce from one port to another through a series of unrelated reflections, that would be unfair. Because in the end what Meyers brings us is a well put together tale about faith, commitment and bravery, determination, belief - and a whole lot of love. And surely you can't ask for more than that.

Headhunters (John King, Random House, 1997)

I picked Headhunters out of the discount rack at a little independent bookshop in Peterborough. I got it for 50 percent off which is just as well as I only managed to read half of it. The author, John King, also penned the best seller, Football Factory, a well received novel about life among the football fanatics of England.

I haven't read Football Factory but I've read Irving Welsh, Nick Hornby and Geoff Dyer and I figured this would fit the same no-holes-barred-salt-of-the-earth-lots-of-swearing-cheeky-chappy-Brit-lit type mould.

But it didn't.

Headhunters invites us into the fold of five likely lads from London, and attempts to add a little - or in some cases a lot - of depth and sympathy to their depraved lives.

The story begins in The Unity, the local watering hole, with the friends totting up the scores of their, 'Sex League' where assorted sexual encounters earn each 'player' points and bragging rights among their peers.

After ploughing through the first few pages I realized to my dismay that the book has no clearly discernable plot. As you weave your way through one disconnected drunken encounter after another you never have any real sense of what the central story is, and where the whole thing is going. In the end it is no surprise that it goes - nowhere.

Another misgiving I had is the characters themselves. Despite the authors attempts to give them depth and likeability, the lads - with the exception perhaps of the moody and somewhat out-of-place Will - come across exactly as they are - shallow.

Harry was particularly grating and the author's attempts to humanize him by recounting his dreams at frequent intervals disrupted the flow of the story and left me with little option but to skip huge sections at a time. Who wants to read about someone's dreams?

In the end the lives of the author's protagonists are left dangling in mid-air and the climatic moment, dramatic as it is, left me feeling much like the characters themselves - empty and disillusioned.

Long Way Round (Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, Time Warner Books, 2005)

I didn't get to see much of Ewan McGregor's Globetrotting Television series, The Long Way Round, but what I did see of it was intriguing: McGregor and his actor pal Charley Boorman motor-biking their way around the world, getting mobbed in Kazakhstan villages (sadly - no Borat in sight), feted by an alcoholic Russian Godfather and his pals and wading through torrents of treacherous waist deep waters as they attempted to traverse the inhospitable, badly rutted roads of Mongolia.

I didn't need much encouragement to read this book.

McGregor and Boorman's joint account takes us from the start line at Shepherd's Bush, London, through Europe, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Alaska, Canada, and on to the final destination - New York (why does it always have to be New York?!).

The author's recollections - McGregor and Boorman take it in turns to recount the narrative - are witty and honest and the story moves along at a nice clip. McGregor's accounts are the more emotional and soul searching of the two.

As well as the events of the trip he recalls his heart wrenching homesickness and ever present fears for the successful outcome of the journey (it was his idea after all, and the whole thing nearly goes awry many times).

Boorman is the more 'ladish' participant focusing mainly on the mechanics of the trip, yet he too shows a deep, sensitive side, and he displays a genuine affection for his traveling companions as well as the many distraught, unfortunate and charismatic characters they meet along the way.

What makes the friends accounts all the more interesting is that we get to witness their personal growth as they progress. The narratives are littered with little gems - such as McGregor's early-journey revelation:

Before we left London, I thought I was going to miss knowing what was going on in the world, but I realized ... as I listened to the wind whistling round my ger (tent:, that being completely out of touch was one of the glories of the trip. We'd traveled a third, of the way around the world on the back of three bikes (the camera man went with them): people's faces had changed, their homes had changed, the way they led their lives and what they believed in were different. But ... if we hadn't been so isolated we might very easily have traveled through these countries without becoming aware that ultimately we are all the same: we all love our kids, we all need somewhere to sleep and some food. We all want the same things.

There are achingly touching moments too, like the visit to the UNICEF hostel in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and Macgregor's affliction by a malnourished, sick looking, four year old girl:

It broke my heart to see her in such distress, so in need of love and attention ... Back at the hotel I was haunted by what I'd seen ... We were planning to move on to Ulan Ude the next day, but that wee girl would still be there ... She had made a deeper impression on me than anything or anyone I'd seen so far on this trip.

(McGregor got together the money the next day to pay for the girl's operation.)

It was heartening to learn, after finishing this book, that McGregor and Boorman have just finished another adventure - this time from Scotland to South Africa. They are calling it The Long Way Down, and donating a percentage of the proceeds to UNICEF.

Long Way Round paints a wonderful portrait of two fun loving Scottish lads having one hell of an excellent adventure.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By Pilgrim (anonymous) | Posted September 15, 2007 at 20:20:39

Enjoyed your review of 'Through the Fire' - LOL when I got to this bit:

"Why do religious people abdicate responsibility for their choices?" I would ask, and, "why do they thank God for all their miseries?!"

"You should study theology" my friend suggested, when I wouldn't shut up. "You ask too many questions."

You should visit SoulSpace sometime: can ask as many questions as you like there.

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By Pilgrim (anonymous) | Posted September 15, 2007 at 20:26:01

Sorry, not sure what happened there, you've got my post twice for some reason. Anyway, here's the URL for SoulSpace

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By webby (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2013 at 23:27:32

They are not both scots, charley is irish you numpty

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