Saturday, December 5, 2009

Book Review: Neon Pilgrim

I've just finished reading Neon Pilgrim, Lisa Dempster's new book about her summer 2009 walk around Shikoku's henro trail. While i found it a very interesting read, i have to admit that it was a struggle and took me a month to work my way through it.

First off, let me say that while i am somewhat critical, i still highly recommend it to anyone contemplating walking the henro trail. If you are planning to walk during the summer, and/or planning to camp out as you make your way around the island, this is a must read, along with Craig McLachlan's Tales of a Summer Henro.

Lisa is up front right from the very beginning: she begins her walk as an overweight, unemployed, and seriously depressed henro. Her purpose is to get fit, both physically and mentally, in an attempt to get herself out of the hell hole that depression has left her in. As she said:

"I hoped the henro michi would work magic on me, get me into better shape physically, yes, but also whip my mind into mental shape. I was desperately sad about my situation and wanted to make things better. But I was unsure about how. I guess that's why I was walking. I wanted to work it all out."

Her honesty helps because it goes a long way to explaining her attitude and behavior as she walks the trail. At least it helped me.

Purely from a writing point of view, i found the book well written. Lisa's adventures and experiences were nicely woven into a story that flowed smoothly from the first chapter to the last, and which pulled me along, always wondering what would happen next. She does a very good job of describing the characters she meets and interacts with along the trail.

That said, though, i did have several problems with the book and those were the reason it took so long to get through it. While it flowed nicely, there were times that i was frustrated enough with what she had to say that i just had to put the book down for a while — usually for several days.

I don't know Lisa, so don't know what her personality is like. Judging by the book, though, it seems that she likes to shock people. Every now and then in the book, she'd say something that would completely puzzle me. One example of that is the following:

"Kamo-no-yu is a tiny local bathhouse — two pools inside and one out — and that afternoon it was packed with little old ladies who stared openly as I sat on a low stool and scrubbed the grime from my body. One of them got the courage to come and talk to me, which left me in a quandary: keep washing my vagina or stop and chat?..."

From my point of view, these bits added no value to the story; they didn't help explain the characters she was meeting, didn't help to explain her experiences, and didn't help explaining how she was viewing her experiences. I could only interpret them as having been intentionally added to "spice up" the book, which for me didn't work.

Another problem i had with the book was that Lisa seemed to go out of her way to find the worst in almost every situation. She seemed to go out of her way to complain and criticize throughout the book. Occasionally she would make a point of looking at the beautiful side of the walk, but then shatter that in an instant, like this example:

"I was walking in a hazy pre-dawn light. As the day brightened a verdant dark green valley was revealed, with misty mountains rising up all around. The scenery was magic and it enchanted me.

I was also busting for a piss, ..."

Yes, for some strange reason, throughout the book she seems compelled to tell us every time she needed to take a piss, and occasionally, i guess because it was important to her at the moment, when she needed to take a shit. To give her credit, though, Lisa did a very good job of showing just how much and how often settai was offered to her throughout her walk.

Lisa undoubtedly had a difficult time on the henro trail, both physically and mentally; that's obvious from page 1 to page 236. Having said that though, i did get the impression that she had changed by the time her walk had come to an end, that she had grown and was slightly better off after having endured throughout the entire walk. In the later chapters she seemed mellower, more open to the world, more accepting of other people. Is it true or am i just reading that into the story because i want to believe it had that effect on her. I'm not sure.

As i said at the beginning, i do recommend the book. It is a great introduction to camping out and having to look for somewhere outside to sleep each night. It is also a great look at how fellow henro band easily into a sort of family while on the trail. If nothing else, this certainly paints a good picture of what it is like to walk the henro trail in the heat and humidity of Shikoku's summer.

Read it and make up your own minds. Maybe my reaction to the book was because our personalities are completely different. I don't know. In any case, i think all will enjoy the read.

Happy reading.

Related post: Imperfect Pilgrimage

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