Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


For this year’s A to Z Blog challenge, I thought I’d draw back the curtain and explore the life and times of a bibliophile.  Care to join me?

This selection seems particularly timely, given that its author, Robert Pirsig, passed away on Monday.

I first came to this book looking for a motorcycle story, but what I found was an introduction to a different way of thinking about life, and my place in it.  The ability to maintain a motorcycle becomes a metaphor for understanding all the underpinnings of a life, and being aware enough to make necessary adjustments when things get out of synch. This ability is contrasted with a more “romantic” approach that does not prepare or attempt to anticipate potential problems, which then relies on outside help when things go wrong.

What I liked about this book, another middle school discovery, is that it seemed to validate that my fascination with things scientific, and technical wasn’t necessarily at odds with my longing for beauty.

I was never quite able to completely embrace Pirsig’s philosophy, but it intrigued me, and, like all good experiences, it gave me quite a bit to think about, and still does.  It’s been a while since I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I think it’s about time I pick it up again.  My motorcycles might not need any adjustments at this time, but my mind can always stand to be challenged.


The Year of Magical Thinking


For this year’s A to Z Blog challenge, I thought I’d draw back the curtain and explore the life and times of a bibliophile.  Care to join me?

This one is a difficult selection for me.  Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking in response to the death of her husband, John Dunne, and it was published the same year that my father died.

Joan Didion writes about that odd feeling that, somehow, the deceased is only “away,” and will return.  It’s the reason she couldn’t give away her husband’s shoes; he would need them when he came back.  That her daughter also passed away during this time frame brings an added heartache to the story, and to the grieving process.

The book is very detached, almost clinical in its tone, which simultaneously helps to heighten the sense of loss, but also mitigate it somehow.  All I know is that when I lost my father, I also lost my way.  I did not know how to navigate the waters of grief and mourning, did not know how I was going to ever be “right” again.  In the face of that raw, excruciating pain, I needed a dispassionate voice to lead me to calmer waters.  In that, The Year of Magical Thinking was exactly the compass I needed.





For this year’s A to Z Blog challenge, I thought I’d draw back the curtain and explore the life and times of a bibliophile.  Care to join me?

I have to make a confession here: I’m cheating.  Of the three works comprising the collection published under the title Xenogenesis, I’ve only read one: Imago.  I included this title in my list, so I could focus on its author, Octavia Butler.

I picked up Imago shortly after it was published, not realizing it was part of a series.  The fact that I have not gone back to read the other two books in the series is a major shortcoming of my reading character, and one I intend to correct after this A to Z challenge is finished.

It may have been the harder science fiction elements of genetic manipulation that first attracted me to Imago, but it was the “softer” elements, the social themes, and what it means to be human that kept me in thrall.  To be honest, I’ve always been drawn to stories that teach me how this human story plays out, that reveal the best, and the worst in all of us, and that suggest we can be better.  Octavia Butler is one of the masters of revealing the human condition.

I first read Kindred in high school, intrigued by the time travel aspect of the story.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the absolute emotional power of the tale, the devastating artistry of the language. Kindred was the first book I read that revealed race to me in a way my upbringing in the military had not prepared me for.  It also put the Civil War in a context that I had never seen before.  The version I had been taught was almost sterile, but this was the antebellum South with little to veil it.

So why is Octavia Butler on my list?  Well, not only does she tell a hell of a story, and tell it with breathtaking artistry, but she was one of the first women science fiction writers I read.  From her, I learned to appreciate the unique timbre of a woman’s voice in writing.


Wuthering Heights


For this year’s A to Z Blog challenge, I thought I’d draw back the curtain and explore the life and times of a bibliophile.  Care to join me?

I’ve mentioned my fondness for period films, and the books that inspired them.  Well, I’ve not seen a film version of Wuthering Heights that I particularly like, and, thanks to an English Lit professor I had, I probably never will.  More on that later.

I have to be honest here.  Although I love Emily Brontë’s writing, with all its brooding atmosphere, and distinctive characters, I am not a fan of Wuthering Heights.  I tried to like it, I really did, but I found Catherine to be annoying as hell.  And Heathcliff?  Well, I just thought he was a sadistic jerk.

Easily impressed by the trappings of nobility and privilege, Catherine foreswears Heathcliff because of his social status and rather course manner.  He runs off, she gets in a tizzy, she gets married, he comes back and seduces Catherine’s sister-in-law to get revenge. . . .Oh, dear GOD talk about a soap opera.

Wuthering Heights has the distinction of being a book I love for its language, and loathe because of its plot.  I like Emily Brontë’s use of parallel story lines across generations.  I like the way she sets the scene, the atmosphere, the sense of despair and isolation.  I even like how effectively she uses cruelty in the story.  I just wish she had told a different story.

So back to my English Lit professor.  Our prof was a little bit of an odd duck, and insisted that Wuthering Heights was actually quite funny.  As proof, he highlighted the rather bland cruelty Lockwood demonstrates in flirting with a young woman at the beginning of the story.  As soon as she shows interest, Lockwood returns her interest with disdain.  The prof found this particularly amusing, and lamented that none of the film versions got it right.  Of course someone had to ask him who he thought could make a film of Wuthering Heights he would find acceptable.  Without missing a beat, the prof replied, “Monty Python.”

Now THAT’S a film I’d be willing to see.



Veronika Decides to Die



For this year’s A to Z Blog challenge, I thought I’d draw back the curtain and explore the life and times of a bibliophile.  Care to join me?

I did not intend to include two different books by the same author in my list.  In fact, it had been my intention that if there were two books that I felt important enough to include, that I would include the author, and reference the works as part of the blog post.  Well, best laid plans of mice and (wo)men and all that.

Paulo Coelho describes Veronika Decides to Die as being an autobiographical novel, but I don’t think he has ever revealed how much of the novel is factual.  It would be understatement to say that Coelho’s parents didn’t approve of his literary aspirations.  They had him committed to a mental institution while he was still a teenager.  He escaped multiple times before he was released at age twenty.

As the book opens, the title character has decided to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.  Her attempt fails, and she wakes up in a mental institution.  She suffers from a series of cardiac events and is told that her heart was irreparably damaged in the attempt, and she is living on borrowed time.  Through her interaction with other patients, Veronika learns passive refusal to live is the same thing as actively choosing to die, and she had been guilty of both.  Eventually, she decides to choose life with all of its pain and uncertainty than to surrender to despair.

I encountered this book at a particularly dark time in my life when I struggled with the repercussions of my past, felt trapped, defined, and bound to it with no hope of redeeming it.  In this novel, I found not a panacea, but a kind of roadmap, a guide, if you will, to help me learn how to engage life rather than flee from it.



The Unbearable Lightness of Being


For this year’s A to Z Blog challenge, I thought I’d draw back the curtain and explore the life and times of a bibliophile.  Care to join me?

I didn’t read this novel by Milan Kundera until I was nearly 30, but it definitely left an impact.

It’s going to sound weird, but even though I knew I had read books in translation before, The Unbearable Lightness of Being marked the first time I read a translation that also made me aware of exactly how different my life, my world was from the one the author depicted.  And yet, of all the novels I’ve read, this one is probably one of the handful that has helped me understand myself better.

The novel is full of seeming contradictions.  A philandering doctor who loves only his wife, an intellectual photographer who turns dissident photojournalist.  Sex verses love, existential lightness verses existential weight, dissent verses conformity, innocence verses experience.  Body image issues, self-acceptance, the nature of freedom, reconciliation, and even the nature of art emerge throughout the narrative.  All of it is set in the time right around the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

It isn’t necessarily an easy read, but I wouldn’t call it heavy.  There is a kind of playfulness in the narrative, and in the language that belies the serious themes it introduces.  It encourages a kind of lightness (no pun intended) in grappling with life, humanity, and everything that goes along with it.

Tolkien, J.R.R.


For this year’s A to Z Blog challenge, I thought I’d draw back the curtain and explore the life and times of a bibliophile.  Care to join me?

Up until 8th grade, I had been nose-deep in Shakespeare, Greek and Roman mythology (although I didn’t read The Odyssey, or The Aenid until college), and boat loads of science fiction.  I still read as many books about horses as I could, although my reading list began to drift into more technical tomes about riding, taking care of horses, and breed histories.

And then I was introduced to The Hobbit, our assigned reading for the semester.

I was immediately captivated by this language that felt so familiar to me, and yet had taken me so far away.  This was the language of my Saxon forebears, the folk tales and legends of the Cotswold hills, the musical lilt of Cymru’s tongue.

I won’t pretend to be a Tolkien scholar in any manner, but I had read that the tales of Middle Earth were a kind of conjecture on Tolkien’s part of what Saxon mythology might have looked like, had it survived the cultural purge after the Norman conquest. The romantic in me, the part of me that believes any tragedy can be redeemed with time and love enough, likes this explanation a great deal.  I almost don’t care about its veracity.

After reading The Hobbit, I went in search of anything with Tolkien’s name on it.  By the end of the school year, I was well into The Lord of the Rings.  It was because of Tolkien that I found C.S. Lewis, Narnia, and Till We Have Faces, which lead me to The Odyssey.