Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim: A Midlife Misadventure on Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostela by Jane Christmas

What is the one thing that might make you spend some time browsing through a particular book at a book store? For some it's an interesting cover or the blurb, for others it's the title, but for me, it's usually the first line of the book. I'm such a sucker for good first liners that I decided to collect a few that really stood out for me.

I guess no post on first liners could ever be complete without Tolstoy's line from Anna Karenina:

"All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way".

Although this quotation for years has stood unchallenged as a stand-alone statement about the human condition, I read in Id's blog that author Rachel Kadish challenged it in her book "Tolstoy Lied". I can't wait to read the book for myself....

Another great first line often quoted and more often the subject of a joke is from Moby Dick:

"Call me Ishmael"

I really didn't think much about this particular first line until I saw some graffiti in Toronto the other day which read "Call me, Ishmael" !

From Tahmima Anam's "A Golden Age":

"Dear Husband, I lost our children today".

I will confess when I first saw those lines they were so powerful that I knew then and there I was going to be by the book. Although it was an impulsive buy I will never regret it because the book turned out to be an absolutely golden read and is now nominated for a Guardian First Book Award.

Paperback/Sep 2007
Greystone Books
288 pages
$21.95 CAD

The book I am reading currently not only has a great opening line - "Impulse is intuition on crack"- but a great title as well!

"What The Psychic Told the Pilgrim" is Jane Christmas' true adventure story of traveling on foot to Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostetla to celebrate a milestone - her 50th birthday . This decision to make the pilgrimage that most people take years pondering over was made on a short plane ride that Christmas took. What made Ms. Christmas want to undertake such a challenge? I will tell you...but first, a few words on the Camino de Santigo de Composteta:

The Way of St. James or St. James' Way, often known by its Spanish name, el Camino de Santiago, is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of the apostle Saint James the Great, are buried.

A midlife crisis, wanting to get away from a troublesome teenager and the chance to roam free are some of the reasons for wanting to do make this pilgrimage is what Jane Christmas told Macleans magazine. Also, she had always found it difficult to express her Christian faith and it seemed to her that this was one way to do it. She was accompanied by 14 other women. Initially Christmas was happy to have them join her because she thought it might be a kind of Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" but turns out the group started splintering into cliques, and there was all this subtle backbiting that morphed into Lord of the Flies on estrogen.

I have to confess to thoroughly enjoying this book! It's a good, funny read with descriptions so lucid and real it almost felt like the author was holding my hand and guiding me through this brutal walk. The 800-kilometer walk with its mountainous, muddy, rocky terrain, its cranky and competitive pilgrims and the crowded and mostly full pilgrim lodges sound quite daunting to me, but its not without its good moments and ofcourse, the wonderful humor of our host together with the history and other excellent background information she provides of the walk, pulls you along quite nicely. "What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim" is however so much more than just the is a conversation on women's friendships, motherhood, a reflection of one's faith, of pushing oneself to the limit, the celebration of a milestone and a journal of self-discovery.

n closing, I will take a virtual walk with this author anytime, but if I ever sign up for a real pilgrimage, especially something as brutal as this in a fit of midlife madness, please hit me!

About the author:

Jane Christmas worked as a newspaper editor for twenty-five years and has written for the Hamilton Spectator, the Globe and Mail, and the National Post. She is the author of The Pelee Project: One Woman’s Escape from Urban Madness. She has three children and lives in Hamilton, Ontario.


Asha said...

"I lost our children" is enough to trigger my curiosity too!!

Melody said...

Those are great first lines, Lotus! Like you, I always take notice of the first lines whenever I read a book; sometimes I can feel whether or not the book is a page-turner by reading the first line, although it doesn't always apply to all.

It defintely takes some adjustment in all new jobs, so I'm hoping you will get settled down soon and that you will have more time in your reading, reviews, blogging etc etc later! :) All the best!

jenclair said...

I love first lines that linger, then take on a life of their own. I remember when you reviewed A Golden Age--it is still on my TBR list. Now I'm adding What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim (and am actually thinking what a great idea to decide now on a pilgrimage for my next birthday, not necessarily a religious one, but perhaps a spiritual one).

jenclair said...

We will miss you while you are on hiatus, but understand the pressures of a new job. Best of luck!

Milan - zzz said...

Good luck with your new job! Oh I'll miss your posts but OK I'll use this pause to catch up what you wrote while I was on hiatus :)

I belong to the group of those who looks cover design and blurb; also recommendation from friends or bookish blogs (like this one) and actually I have problem with the last line. It's incredibly dumb, I know but I have enforce myself to not read the last sentence (several times there I found huge spoiler).

I remember while I was traveling all over Northern Spain (sadly not in Santiago de Compostela) I was founding in may towns on the streets signs or bricks with the note "El Camino de Santiago"; in the most urban parts of the towns, in front of the shop windows of famous boutiques etc. I always asked locals about it and they said that the actual camino (road) is leading though the town and those signs are marking it.
How strange is that? Just imagine poor St Iago walking and looking new Swarowski, Zarra, Armani, Gucci, Prada ... products. That would be very hard road full of temptations! Who knows would he even reach Compostela? LOL
(I hope this doesn't sound like a sacrilege)

Sanjay said...

Hey there buddy, good to see you back!! I hope you had a wonderful Diwali? How were the movies? I loved reading this post and your thoughts about the opening lines in a book.

Unlike you the opening line of a book might draw my attention but never induce me in to buying the book. I have to read what a book is about before I go for it. And these are the ones that I don’t read about from your wonderful blog. You are spot on with your recommendations!

I am however rather green behind the ears when it comes to books so I can hardly remember any of the lines you talk about (Yes.. throw me to the wolves.. make me walk the plank! :-), save the one from Tahmina Aman’s book which just grabbed me right away. I am like you enthused to see it make the list for a Guardian First Book Award. And the one from "What The Psychic Told the Pilgrim" is also great.

I loved reading about the book and the author interview in Macleans and your review which captures the essence of the book very well. I found Jane Christmas’s motivation for taking on this pilgrimage interesting. Any idea as to what the state of the problematic teen was after she returned? Did their relationship improve? How did her children react to her decision to take this on?

While the title is great does she explain it? I assume she uses it to merely make a point that she was having conversations with herself or her “spiritual” self.

I read her quote from the Macleans interview There's sort of a social persecution of Christians these days, and this was in-your-face: "Yeah, I'm going on a religious pilgrimage, you think there's something wrong with that?" I find it difficult to express my faith, and this was a way to do it.

Frankly I am surprised the interviewer lets her get away with that assertion unchallenged. The reason I say this is as soon as Christmas season arrives we start hearing stories in the news media about Christians feeling persecuted. That word is thrown about so lightly, it needs to be challenged. Is there really a persecution of Christians, social or otherwise in Christian majority countries like Canada and the US?
Frankly that is hard to believe.

What does she mean by “I find it difficult to express my faith” While this may not be relevant I thought it at least needs to be clarified. Did she feel any different about it when she came back?

Also how does her going to a foreign land on a pilgrimage make it easier to express her faith in say Canada? Does she talk about that?

I wish I could ask the author all these Qs if she gave a book talk someplace close? :-)

Your description of the pilgrimage reminds me of those that pilgrims undertake to the shrines in the Himalayas.

Coming back to the book and the interview, I was really struck by her description of the dynamics the group that she was with. I thought the whole idea of a pilgrimage is to pay obeisance to a higher power and try to get back to some of the principles that major religions talk about of taking oneself away from things like vanity, jealousy and pettiness. The group she talks about clearly appears to fail at this.

The fact that some pilgrims also had one night stands makes me wonder about the religiosity that some claim to practice.

A number of observers have said that some of the Christianity as practiced in the US is one more adapted to the “instant gratification” culture that seems so dominant here. Any parallels or differences with the one in Canada?

And just so you know I am not anti–religion just have this bad habit of questioning everything. :-/

And none of the above is meant to take away anything from what a few of even dare to do, take time off from our commitments to try to ask ourselves what we are really all about, examine and celebrate whatever faith one has. For that and her excellent travelogue (based on your description) Jane Christmas truly has to be commended.

Sorry about the length of the comment and the tangent that I took off on.

Thank you for telling us about this book.

Congratulations on the new gig and as some of your other readers pointed out it may be a matter of getting used to the new routine and once you settle in everything else will fall in to place. You will be missed but please enjoy the hiatus (as best you can) and make the most of it. Hope to see you back sooner rather than later.

Lotus Reads said...

@Asha ~ Yup, those are powerful lines, aren't they?

@Melody ~ Thank you so much! Yes, opening lines are rather like first impressions, aren't they? :) I hope to be back in the blogosphere soon. Like you say, it's a matter of adjusting to a new place, learning new things etc.

@Jenclair ~ A pilgrimage (spiritual or religious) is a truly wonderful way to mark a milestone. I would definitely like to do one some day but I don't think I could bring myself to do the El Camino, it sounds harrowing. I'd love to hear what you decide to do for your very special milestone...please keep us posted. And Jenclair, I'm not doing anything with my copy, would you like me to mail it to you? Also, have you read "The Singular Pilgrim" by Rosemary Mahoney? I haven't, but she does visit some interesting pilgrim sites.

Lotus Reads said...

@Milan ~ Hi! I had to smile at the thought of you being constantly tempted to read the last line first...I know I simply couldn't do it, it would spoil the book for me, but I can completely understand the urge to want to see how the book ends!

You are so right, the pilgrim route does go past quite a few busy and touristy towns! I guess even in the 11th century, town leaders realized that having a steady stream of pilgrims pass through the town/city had gold mine potential! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, sanj!

Only made it to "Om Shanti Om' in the end. It was a long movie, nearly 3 hours long and I simply couldn't take another movie after that! lol

Glad you were able to read the Macleans interview. Christmas doesn't elaborate on the problem with her teen in the book but I think most mothers with teenagers would sort of sympathize with her and her need to get away. From what she says her children weren't particularly affected one way or the other by her doing this trip. I guess they are pretty independent kids.

WRT the title, she actually did meet a psychic before embarking on the trip and a lot of what the psychic told her actually came true, including one other very nice thing that I have deliberately left out so as not to spoil the surprise!

I read her quote from the Macleans interview There's sort of a social persecution of Christians these days, and this was in-your-face: "Yeah, I'm going on a religious pilgrimage, you think there's something wrong with that?" I find it difficult to express my faith, and this was a way to do it.

Interesting...I missed that part about "social persecution" when I read the interview (obviously my speed reading needs some working on). I don't think there is any social persecution of Christians this side of the world but I think it has become increasingly difficult to wear your religion (any religion) on your sleeve so to speak. However Jane Christmas does feel like Christians are targeted for their faith. For instance, she says this on page 76:

All I knew was that the Camino offered a safe haven for people like me - people who want to express the spiritual side of themselves without being harassed or viewed as some quaint oddity of the modern age, people who pray and believe in God but who occasionally use profanity and listen to heavy metal"

She goes on to say:

Why are Christians made to feel like freaks? Is it because Christianity is seen as a white man's faith?

She also feels that many Christians find it difficult to speak up for or defend their faith and walking the Camino helped her demonstrate her faith without fearing a backlash.

I can't remember her addressing her faith again in the book but she did love the sense of freedom (the gypsy life as she calls it) provided by the Camino, the awesome sense of self-discovery, the pleasure of discovering a town on foot and so much more! Walking the Camino is addictive and she met pilgrims who were walking it for the third or fourth time. Some were so addicted to the walk that they were even prepared to give up their marriages for it.

Coming back to the book and the interview, I was really struck by her description of the dynamics the group that she was with. I thought the whole idea of a pilgrimage is to pay obeisance to a higher power and try to get back to some of the principles that major religions talk about of taking oneself away from things like vanity, jealousy and pettiness. The group she talks about clearly appears to fail at this.

Yes, those pilgrims do seem like a rather unhappy bunch don't they? I think it has a lot to do with how physically demanding the trail is. Most of the pilgrims develop pretty painful afflictions like broken toes, swollen and infected nails, leg name it....and then, instead of the comfort of their own beds and families they have to sleep 30 to a room in dorm style with perfect strangers...a perfect recipe for bringing out the worst in people perhaps?

Sorry about the length of the comment and the tangent that I took off on.

Hey, no apologies necessary Sanj. I love your questions and how curious you are about everything. Not sure when or if this book will be launched in the US, but yes, if you do meet the author, I think the both of you will have a great discussion!

You know the one question I want to ask Christmas? Can I get the name and address of your psychic? lol

Hollydolly said...

Hello Anjali:

This looks to be a really, really interesting book. I must put this on my wish list.

There is a Toronto author, Sue Kenney, she has written two wonderful books on her walks along the Camino. They are favorites of mine. Check them out if you get a chance.

Love and huge hugs…..Sylvia.

Sanjay said...

Hey there friend, thank you for your response, it does shed a lot of light on things!
@ Om Shanti Om being 3 hours *shudder* sorry :). I don't blame you for only seeing one movie.

I am glad to know that her children were not that affected by her trip.

:-) @psychic predictions. Good for her I suppose.

Thank you for telling me what Christmas says about her religious persecution. I still am mystifies by her term "harassment". And is she saying that people who believe in god but listen to heavy metal and sometimes use profanity don't exist? That is a bit hard to believe, but she is entitled to her opinion. In my view it is not so abnormal to have belief in god go hand in hand with metal and profanity.

As for her statement about being made to feel like a freak. I am sure some people disapprove but she uses too broad a brush me thinks. I don't see a problem with her wearing her faith on her sleeve as long as she is not forcing others to think the same as her. I understand that demonstrating her faith is easiest at a holy shrine or on a pilgrimage, but still I believe that there is freedom of religion in Canada and the US no?

Interesting that the demanding nature of the trail and the lodging brought out the worst, perhaps folks are so used to the comforts of home that conditions on the road were too much to bear?

Thank you for your kind response and I agree I would enjoy a discussion with the author about these topics.

tanabata said...

When browsing it's covers and titles that catch my eye. Then if that gets me to pick a book up I read the back blurb and then if it sounds interesting, the first few lines. But those first lines are often the last little push to buy it or what makes me put the book back down.

Good luck with your new job and finding a way to balance it with the rest of what you want to do. It truly is hard sometimes to fit everything in. In the meantime, you'll be missed! :)

A Reader from India said...

Lotus, Congratulations and Good Luck on your new job!

Loved your views on the first lines of books. Another often quoted first line from Pride and Prejudice - 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.' I have lost count of the times I have come across this quote.

I am intrigued by "What The Psychic Told the Pilgrim', not only for its great opening line - I had loved Paulo Coelho's book 'The Pilgrimage' which is a mystic travelogue that describes his journey to Santiago de Compostetla. It is one of the most beautiful books I ever read. The book focused almost entirely on the author's spiritual awakening and mystic experiences.

"What The Psychic Told the Pilgrim' sounds like a very interesting and very different take on the same pilgrimage. I would definitely try to check this out.

And I really, really hope you find the time to read, review and post.

Nanditha Prabhu said...

Lotus! congrats on your new job!I can understand the pressures .....but i just wish you find time to read review and blog! in a very short time you were able to make a beautiful rapport...many r going to miss you if u slow down here.

i am also always impressed by first liners....but not impulsive to buy it then n there as i tend to still lead a nomadic life...when we had to donate our 3 bookshelves of books to friends when we came here , we decided to stick to libraries till we settle down.but as u said its so tempting .. my hubby has started paper swapping ! he says , he cant live in a house without books:)

will surely search for " what psychic told pilgrim"
take care

Lotus Reads said...

@Sylvia ~ Hi!!! No, I haven't heard of Sue Kenney, but I will definitely look those books up Sylvia, thank you very much! It's amazing how many people have written about the El Camino, obviously it's a walk of a lifetime. Wish I was brave enough to do it. I might like to do one in India, but the crowds are too much...I would hate to perish in a stampede.

@Sanj ~ Not being the kind of person to discuss my religion in public I can't say that I have met with any negative reactions wrt my faith. My feeling is (and I could be wrong) that the author is bemoaning the fact that North America is becoming more secular and less Christian? For instance many Christian traditions (like prayer in school, court etc. or even wishing customers a "Merry Christmas") which were formerly taken for granted, no longer are permitted unless it is a Catholic or Mission organization. This is just a guess as I said, I could be wrong. But, as she laments, it could be that Christians get the feeling they are thought of as crazy for expressing their faith in public, whereas that didn't happen earlier? I don't know. Perhaps I could ask a couple of other people and get their POV's too.

Lotus Reads said...

@Nat ~ I agree, a good visual goes a long way to making a book more marketable. I do have a soft spot for covers too, but I will admit that those first lines get me everytime! :) Yes, it's always hard juggling a new job with one's extracurriculars, especially when it's at such a busy time in the year, but I feel confident things will settle down in a month or two. Thanks!

@A Reader ~ You are so right,I have come across that quote too! Thank you so much for telling me about the Paulo Coelho book. I have no doubt the book is stirring in its spiritual revelations. Coelho is a fantastic writer and I have learned much from "The Alchemist" which is the only book of his that I have read. I have sitting on my bookshelf "The Witch of Portobello" (a gift from a dear friend), have you read that one? ANd if you have, what did you think? I won't be gone long, Reader and anytime I have a little time I just might be tempted to put up a post!

heather (errantdreams) said...

This book sounds quite fascinating, and I love the opening line.

Congratulations on your new job, and I hope things get less busy soon!!

Lotus Reads said...

@Nanditha ~ Awww, thank you! It is good to know I will be missed, but I won't be gone long, besides, whenever I do find the time, I will be sure to put up a post or two. You donated 3 bookshelves of books???!!! Not having them must have left quite a void in your reading lives. Do you plan to stay on in Detroit for a while, or will you be moving again?

@Heather ~ Thank you! I'm sure things will settle down to a manageable pace by Jan!

Anali said...

Wow! Those are some great first lines. What a cool idea for a post. First lines always get me too. Enjoy your hiatus, but I'll be missing your posts! ; )

iliana said...

Hi Lotus - Just wanted to wish you lots of luck with your new job! Will miss your posts but can understand the madness with a new job. Take care!

Sanjay said...

Thanks buddy for your response. I don't discuss my religion in public either but I used to have a co-worker who went from being secular to a born again Christian. At work his desk was always adorned with a lot of religious icons and pictures which never bothered me or the others around. The fact of the matter is that America is not a Christian nation and there is a clear separation of church and state. As for prayer at public school, as a general rule, organized prayer in the public school setting, whether in the classroom or at a school-sponsored event, is unconstitutional. The only type of prayer that is constitutionally permissible is private, voluntary student prayer that does not interfere with the school's educational mission. It would be nice to know what others think about being able or expressing their faith.

As for the "Happy Holidays" greeting I agree it goes a bit too far in my opinion, but a lot of other festivals do fall around the time too, so maybe that is a generic greeting? Personally if someone says "Merry Christmas" to me I will just wish the person right back and it does not bother me that I was wished "Merry Christmas". I think people worry too much about these things at times. As long as nobody is preaching to me I am ok.

Sorry this is sort of away from the topic of the post. :-)

ML said...

I hear you on the hiatus! I just recently started a new job and I'm so bogged down that I barely have time for much anymore.

See you on the flip side, Lotus! :)

Nanditha Prabhu said...

hey lotus,
looks like i'll be in detroit 4 another 2 years...i dont think its possible 4 us to live without books..we are compensating for the vacuum our books created ...though we strictly do not want to give to temotations, in the few months , we already have filled up 1 1/2 bookshelf.."with point my hubby scores for paper swaping he is secretly buying books....and i am secretly letting it happen

take care...

Id it is said...

All work and no play...! Lotus, do find some down time to post, even if they are one-liners; I've come to depend on your blog for 'good reads' and I'm sure there are many like me.

Thank you for pointing out the significance of first lines in a novel; I may have noticed a few, and definitely the two you mention in your post (also the opening lines of Twelfth Night for some reason!). Whether my decision to read the book is contingent upon or affected by that line, I cannot say; I'd have to reflect on that and even research it over the next couple of books that i choose to read. You have me curious on that one.

Good luck on the new job.

Lotus Reads said...

@Anali ~ THanks! I'll try to put in an appearance whenever I can!

@Iliana ~ THank you! Yes, there is a lot to learn and more so because this is a line of work that is completely new to me.

@Sanj ~ Thank you, I wasn't aware of some of those things you mentioned in your comment, so I feel quite enlightened as I always do after reading what you have to say!

@ml ~ Glad to know I have company! :)

AmitL said...

Hi,Lotus...I wonder if I've been here before?I love the reviews and extracts from books that you post.:)Nice going..will be back to read some archive posts,soon.:)

Susan in Italy said...

Gosh, I've been gone entirely too long. Missed Diwali completely, which stinks and now you're buckling under the same kind of pressure (too much work) that I feel to be able to blog well. I feel your pain. Have a good break and good luck with the new job! What are you doing, btw?

Anonymous said...

When you do return, is it possible to change the background colour of your blog? Its so hard to read with that green background.

Tara said...

Hi Lotus, I hope you are doing well. I've always found starting a new job to be so stressful and mentally exhausting. I hope you are reading some good books to relax and that you'll be back sometime!

Beth said...

One of my best friends is gearing up to do the Camino in May. I've just forwarded her this piece! I had no idea the trail itself was so full of physical obstacles (in addition to the simple task of doing all that walking)! Eek!

Alice Teh said...

Totally understand. I've changed job about 3 months ago... Can't wait to see you again. And, thanks for all the lovely stuff you left me in Facebook! :D

Bellezza said...

Please consider joining my Japanese Literature Challenge. The details came be found at:

I'd love to talk more books with you!

Happy Reader said...

Lotus - Looks we are in the same boat! I'll be starting a new job soon and I can see that I am already stressed out. Good luck with your new job! Come back soon with more reviews and I'll miss you in the mean time! You are such an inspiration to all of us...
You have posted some great first liners. I liked the one esp. from Golden Age. Makes me want to grab the book right away.

kimananda said...

Hello Lotus, I come by after a time not visiting many people, and find that you've taken a break too. But I couldn't pass up a chance to comment on something Camino I'm in Denmark as a result of meeting a charming Danish man on the walk to Santiago, oh, several years ago at this point. I am interested in reading this book, but I must say, it sounds much more catty and competitive than I found it. I'd recommend it to anyone, and found the sense of communitas, and also community truly all-encompasing. It isn't that brutal a walk either, to be honest (though hiking 6-8 hours a day isn't the easiest either, of course).

Carl V. said...

Hope the new job is going well for you and that you are finding time to relax and enjoy yourself during your off time.

Happy Reader said...

Dowry Bride was such a boring read for me too! I couldn't get past the first 50 pages..Very disappointing read :(

Anonymous said...

Hello I just entered before I have to leave to the airport, it's been very nice to meet you, if you want here is the site I told you about where I type some stuff and make good money (I work from home): here it is

Nyssaneala said...

That Lord of the Flies on estrogen quote is great!

Congrats on the new job. I'm enjoying my new job too...full-time mummy! :)

iamnasra said...

Hey how are you ..enjoyed your blog...

Its Nasra from shelfari

Beloved Dreamer said...

Ah Sweet Lotus, it's been a long time since I have commented on something. Many times I am here but do not comment. This book and it,s open words captured me. "The Way of St James the Great"... I must read it St James the brother of Jesus. It is a wonderful pilgrimage...
See my friend I do stop by and see what you are up to.
That you are taking a break is sad for us but you cannot do both at once. For right now, your job is more important and that is as it should be.
If you have a little time, email me my dear friend and let me know everything!

love you-Melanie-bd

Anonymous said...

Hello I just entered before I have to leave to the airport, it's been very nice to meet you, if you want here is the site I told you about where I type some stuff and make good money (I work from home): here it is

K said...

Another project cast aside?

Anonymous said...

look this is the "diet" i told you about you should really enter the site :) bye enter the site

nessie said...

hey its been a long time. Your recent post was the second half of my 2007 - I relate! Best of luck!