Category Archives: Book Review

Thank You, Robert M. Pirsig!

I was filled with a certain sadness when I first read news of Robert Pirsig’s death, the kind of sadness you experience when someone you don’t know, someone who touched your life without knowing it, passes away.

Maybe you are unfamiliar with the name in the title, which would be ok. Maybe you are familiar with what he wrote. Robert Pirsig is the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which he wrote in the 60s, and was first published in 1974. A friend gave me a copy, convinced that the book would resonate with me; and resonate, it did! I don’t know if I ever thanked that friend… (Note to self: say “Thanks!” to Terry).

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Robert Pirsig, and his son Chris, on his 1964 Honda SuperHawk – a CB77 (from the book’s jacket)

The book uses “motorcycle maintenance” only as a metaphor for an in-depth look at life and people, a backdrop for the real story. The bike trip Pirsig took with his son, Chris, takes us from Minnesota to the west coast. I read the book twice and dog-eared many of its pages; it’s something I do. Then I re-read all the dog-eared pages and capture the key messages in a document. Every once in a while, I scan through the document, reminding myself of the author’s ideas that resonated with me. With Zen, I realized that I was a bit of a philosopher, although I’d never venture to write a book about my philosophy. The fact that I was also a motorcycle enthusiast, not a very mechanically-inclined one, I could see myself making that trip. I will read the whole book again…

“…A motorcycle functions in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself… the real cycle you are working on is the cycle called yourself.” Pg. 98

Here are some of the messages you would find if you read the pages with bent corners, just to give you an idea:

The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling. Pg. 12

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness. Pg. 13

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. There are things you should notice right away. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow. Pg. 204

Quality, or its absence, doesn’t reside in either the subject or the object. The real ugliness lies in the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use. […] at the moment of pure Quality perception, at the moment of pure Quality, there is no subject and there is no object. There is only a sense of Quality […] Pg. 290

So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings. When that is done successfully then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all. Pg. 297

If you get a sense that Pirsig’s views were complex, deep, and sometimes confused (or is that confusing?), you’re right. The book takes you along, if you stick with it, and forces you to think about concepts fundamental to life, and to enjoy the journey, which is why I enjoyed it so much. Thank you, Robert Pirsig!

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My ’97 Honda VF-750C Magna

 

Misfit, A Book Review

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Six weeks after I published Dancing Gabe: One Sep At A Time, I received an email from Kimberley Neyedley, a friend (and former co-worker) who had moved to Ottawa a number of years ago. She wanted to tell me about her recently-published book, her first, titled Misfit. Much to her surprise, she had just learned about my recently-published book, my first also. Seems we had a lot in common.

We immediately agreed on a fair trade: our books crossed paths somewhere over northern Ontario, one headed for Winnipeg, the other for Ottawa. It wasn’t long after I received Misfit that I dove in, with both eyes, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m thankful for the opportunity to re-connect with Kimberley. Because of our passion for writing, we now find we have lots to talk about…

You can find out all about Kimberley and her book Misfit on her website.

A review of Misfit
by Kimberley Ann Neyedley

Meet Jill Ann McCann, a smart, creative, and friendly young girl whose main concern is what will people think, and whose main goal is to fit in with her peers. Set in a small, sleepy southern Saskatchewan prairie town where everyone knows your name…and what you had for dinner yesterday, Misfit takes the reader through a range of familiar emotions and, at times, forces some deep reflection. Because we’ve all been school kids and teenagers, we can relate to the story, whether we tried to fit in, made it difficult for others, or simply watched from the sidelines. In the story, Kimberley touches on matters of mental illness and depression, anxiety, alcoholism, religion, relationships, families, death, and growing up. I found myself wondering which parts of the story were fictitious and which were autobiographical.

The author uses colourful language and expressions (like “flat as piss on a plate,” and “heebie jeebies,”) to bring us back to a simpler, more innocent time, and introduces us to the principal characters of her childhood: family, friends, neighbours, teachers, etc. People with lovable names like Grammie Aggie, Uncle Victor, Butchie, Hollerin’ Halleran, Mrs. Crabby, and Hetta Seville; pets also had funny names like Flemmy the rooster, Buckles the Labrador, and Shuffles the cat… Thanks to the author’s attention to detail and her artistic ability to paint scenes, I could picture myself in the hardware store, at the farm, in Auntie Tibs’ house, or at Galaxy’s hockey rink. At one point of the story, Jill lists the inventory of the treats she could buy at the corner store. Seems everyone our age had a corner store with the same treats: Mojos, Sweet Tarts, jawbreakers, liquorice shoelaces, and “gold” gum nuggets in a little white pouch with a drawstring—I can still taste these.

Early on in the story, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Jill. “The thing I remember about growing up is fear: of Butchie, of ol’ HHH, of my parents’ screaming matches, of having to play sports and failing at it, of my peers’ ridiculing and humiliating me. I was scared of everything, too shy to speak to most people who were not family members.” Life got more complicated as Jill grew up. She developed a passion for reading and a world of make-believe to deal with rejection and hardships.

I suspect many readers will feel at home in the story and will relate to many parts, vividly. Oh, the age of innocence… From the general store to the farm, from home to school, from school dances to weekends at Auntie Tibs, I found myself hoping that things would get easier for Jill, maybe on the next page or by the next chapter. But they didn’t, at least not until she moved away. Thankfully, Jill had a best friend, Jen. Together they managed to deal with most of what life would throw their way, heartaches, frustrations, pain, growing up; that’s what friends are for. Chapter after chapter, Neyedley effectively develops contrasting characters, and as a result, we grow fond of some and despise others. That’s life! For example, she describes the contrast between her brother and her as “Butchie and I differed greatly in our approach to life. He ran ahead screaming and I held back timidly.” An invisible child to her parents, Jill eventually found peace at Aunt Mim’s, with whom she moved in as a teenager to escape her warring, alcoholic parents and bully of a brother.

“Fitting in” preoccupied kids when I went to school and remains of prime importance for kids growing up fifty years later. The book does not pretend to provide solutions nor to explain the origins of this urge to fit in, although Neyedley, at one point in the story, explains that “If you suffer from the ‘What will people think?’ attitude, you suffer from an inability to think for yourself and tend not to do what you wish rather than to appease the inherent concept of ‘they’ in ‘What will they think?’” She continues, “If you live your life solely by the idea of how others will judge you, you relinquish control of your life and you will be influenced by the whim of fashion and popular opinion.”

When it came to the issues of fitting in, popularity, innocent teasing, and malicious bullying—we didn’t call it that back then, “just kids being kids, boys being boys, just having a little fun”—I could relate. Heck, I think everyone can relate, regardless of whether you were the school jock, the clown, the princess, the beauty queen, the shy silent type, the average kid, or the misfit. We witnessed the innocent teasing, usually perpetrated by the same people onto the same innocent targets; sometimes encouraged by our actions, or at least not discouraged by our silence. Jill’s story, sprinkled with humour and nostalgia, conveys the lasting effects of such actions (and inactions), words, behaviours…

“In some ways, the great thing about childhood is that it ends.” Eventually, graduation came and went, and Jill the Pill moved away, became just Jill, and… well you’ll just have to read the book to find out. No spoiler alert here.

Kids eventually turn into teenagers who then, in time, become adults. In Misfit, through Jill McCann’s story, Kimberley Neyedley tactfully exposes the hurt and the scars that the cool kids, bullies, jokers, and others without labels, caused (at times unwittingly) by insulting and demeaning those who did not have the confidence and determination to stand up for themselves, or simply by precluding them from participating in group activities. Words do cut deep, as evidenced in one passage: “It was a subtle cut as it left no external mark, but emotionally the damage was extensive. It was a muted way of doing things and those of us sensitive enough to be hurt by words suffered deeply. […] The pain of being rejected by my peers in my adolescence has never left me. It haunts me still.” I have to believe that the author is talking from experience here… I wonder if people ever realize the pain and mental anguish they inflicted; they would not have known that some of their victims would carry this with them for the rest of their lives. How could they know? They were just kids themselves… All Jill wanted was to be told that she was okay, but that didn’t happen.

There’s an important message in Misfit. Neyedley is never “preachy” about it in the story, she simply lets it out to feel better. A courageous cathartic gesture.

Daniel Perron, author of Dancing Gabe: One Step At A Time
April 1, 2016