Monday, July 31, 2006

And now for something completely different

It was a comments thread at Tingle Alley that made me realize I wanted to read Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert: I had previously assumed it was not for me.

So I got it from Amazon (evil, evil Amazon Prime...) and read it (seriously) in two great gulps on Saturday, the first hundred pages in what seemed like the blink of an eye in a brief early-evening piece of down-time and the rest of it late that night after a hot but pleasant evening with two old friends and one six-year-old boy. (Whose funniest contribution to the evening's conversation--he and his mother have been reading the Greek myths--was telling me that I would be Aphrodite, the goddess of love [needless to say I was quite horrified, this is not at all my style!] and that this meant I had a special belt that made me--wait for it--unbearable! His mother hastily corrected this to "irresistible," but the damage was done, we were all laughing hysterically and making ourselves hotter than ever.)

The book's in three sections, each detailing one component of the author's tripartite strategy for recovering from a difficult and draining divorce: Italy for pleasure, India for meditation, Bali for the balance between the two. Indeed as I was reading the first section--Italy/pleasure--I still felt that I was not the ideal reader for this book. I had three problems, all of them rather unreasonable (and I hasten to add that I think it's a very good book as well as an enjoyable one, I reconciled myself to all three of these things by the time I hit the middle India part, which was definitely my favorite):

1. When I read a book that's self-consciously divided into 108 small chapters (on the model, in this case, of the string of beads called a japa mala), I unreasonably expect it to be formally perfect, like something written by Georges Perec or Primo Levi (whose The Periodic Table is one of my favorite books of all time). This book is not formally perfect or even, really, formally interested; it is book as means rather than book as end in itself, book as a way for the writer to communicate with the reader who will as a result feel rather as if she's spending an evening in the writer's company rather than consuming her work as a separate entity. I found this disconcerting: not unpleasant, but distinctly disconcerting.

2. The Italy section seemed to me the one where the narrator most opens herself up to the charge of self-absorption. Privacy concerns mean that she has to tell us rather than show us how she got herself into such a dire state in the first place, and I found a bit too much concentration in this section on the love-related personal problems. (I was sorry, too, to realize that the resolution at the book's ending also involves a new romantic partner, I thought this felt unconvincing or troubling or at least too pat based on the setup at the beginning of the book.)

3. (This is the most unreasonable.) I am pigheadedly resistant to charm! Seriously, some teachers are just genuinely boring, I am not defending those ones, but I have always preferred the superficially dry but deeply interesting teacher to the obviously charming and funny one--I couldn't take those classes taught by, you know, the famous scientist who shoots into class on the first day in a sort of rocket-car and uses it to tell you about propulsion and momentum, and I get an awful stony-faced hostile expression when a speaker keeps cracking jokes, I just don't want to give in and feed the person's ego. (Of course my own lecturing style relies heavily on deliberate charm, but that is partly why I'm so suspicious of it in others....) And Gilbert's authorial voice is all about charm, and I really held out against it.

However once she gets to India I found the rest of the narrative much more engaging--there's an extremely good description in chapters 62 and 63 of Gilbert (a gregarious soul) deciding maniacally that she is going to become the most silent and contemplative member of the community, and scrub temple floors while smiling beatifically, then being called in to the work assignment office and asked to serve as special allowed-to-talk-a-lot hostess to the hundreds of guests who are about to arrive for a silent retreat. It's really a great read, I highly recommend it.

In my opinion the single best passage in the whole book, strictly on the grounds of the writing, comes pretty early on, and that's what I'll leave you with, but stop reading here if you're already very hungry:

Pizzeria da Michele is a small place with only two rooms and one non-stop oven. It's about a fifteen-minute walk from the train station in the rain, don't even worry about it, just go. You need to get there fairly early in the day because sometimes they run out of dough, which will break your heart. By 1:00pm, the streets outside the pizzeria have become jammed with Neapolitans trying to get into the place, shoving for access like they're trying to get space on a lifeboat. There's not a menu. They have only two varieties of pizza here--regular and extra cheese. None of this new age southern California olives-and-sun-dried-tomato wannabe pizza twaddle. The dough, it takes me half my meal to figure out, tastes more like Indian nan than like any pizza dough I ever tried. It's soft and chewy and yielding, but incredibly thin. I always thought we only had two choices in our lives when it came to pizza crust--thin and crispy, or thick and doughy. How was I to have known there could be a crust in this world that was thin and doughy? Holy of holies! Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yummy, chewy, salty pizza paradise. On top, there is a sweet tomato sauce that foams up all bubbly and creamy when it melts the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and the one sprig of basil in the middle of the whole deal somehow infuses the entire pizza with herbal radiance, much the same way one shimmering movie star in the middle of a party brings a contact high of glamour to everyone around her. It's technically impossible to eat this thing, of course. You try to take a bite off your slice and the gummy crust folds, and the hot cheese runs away like topsoil in a landslide, makes a mess of you and your surroundings, but just deal with it.

The only thing distracting me while I was reading Gilbert's book was the question of which out of the many, many people I know who would love the book to send it on to. My friend A. (for some reason a huge proportion of my friends have names beginning with A.--this is neither my main New York A. nor any of my A. students nor either of my Cambridge A.'s), who grew up partly on an ashram and whose spiritual hometown is Napoli? Or perhaps B., who has done a string of great yoga posts recently? But in the end I realized that of course I have to send it on to my lovely sister-in-law who works at an alternative health center and is about to go to Italy for her honeymoon, it seemed the aptest choice.


  1. Thanks for the great review -- I'd had my eye on this book but wasn't sure ... now I think it's a must-read.

  2. Yay - you read it! I like your description of the writing very much -- it really does feel more like a tete-a-tete with an engaging friend than a prose excursion. We will have to discuss more over drinks -- only 1 month or so!

    On your own rec. I have Plato lined up in my queue.

  3. Her sister has a book out that's the #1 Booksense pick for kids this summer - Dairy Queen. It's a great read (I reviewed it back in May at Bookslut) but what I thought was interesting is that both sisters are good writers but such wildly different ones.

    I mean YA coming of age and adult woman coming to terms? Pretty unusual choices don't you think? I wonder what growing up was like in their house!

  4. I think the means vs. ends distinction is incredibly useful -- perhaps part of what we mean by "literary?"

    -- Rachel Hollander

  5. Dorothy W.: Oh, I think you really should read it, I always feel like this about books I'm enjoying but reading it versus reading an average book was like running in dreams versus running in real life!

    CAAF: Thanks again, I seriously never would have read it if not for your post. Plato: mmmm.... Read SYMPOSIUM first if you never read it before. Can't wait to talk more in NY in Sept.

    Colleen: I only made the DAIRY QUEEN connection when I linked to Gilbert's site just now, and now I can't WAIT to read it! I'm going to Amazon it right now. NB I am hoping that I can egg on one of my brothers (not randomly one of the two, but a particular one!) to write a novel, I am partly curious just to see what it will be like ....

    Rachel: Yep--but I think you've put it in a much clearer way than I did! In a sense, though, ALL novels are literary, however unambitious--I mean, they may be written primarily to the end of "while away a few hours in an undemanding way"; it is nonfiction where you can make a clearer division. I must think about this more; thanks for your interesting observation....

  6. So glad you liked the book. While I didn't think it was perfect either, I still loved it. I went on to read Gilbert's previous book The Last American Man, which I also liked. She has a distinctive style and voice, though the topic is completely different.

  7. be serious on whats you are doing, dont waste valuable time

  8. be serious on whats you are doing, dont waste valuable time