Sunday, October 21, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert--Part II

I finished this book on the plane home from San Francisco. And while I have some quibbles about it, I have found myself flashing back to it. There are specific scenes which are very good, and there is something about the feelings the book created in me that I keep returning to. It's as though the emotional landscape is hard to leave. I remain conflicted about this book, however.

After four months in an ashram in India, learning to meditate, Gilbert ends the book in Bali. There, she has crafted a bookend finish that is in many ways the exact opposite of the way the book began. The woman who was trapped and miserable in a house, with a husband and the pressure for a baby in New York is now somewhat older, homeless, with a Brazilian lover 16 years her senior. Not only has he already raised a family, he now has a vasectomy, so there is no chance of a baby at all. They make a commitment to each other that they will share their lives between America, Australia, Bali and Brazil.

She also ends with a story about a Zen teaching—that an oak tree is created by the existence of the acorn, plus the force of the tree the acorn will grow into, willing the acorn into growth, to create its own existence. Perhaps, she thinks, the voice that comforted her back when she was sobbing on the bathroom floor in her house in New York was the older, happier, more balanced self who is now in Bali . She does not have a house. . .so far as we know; she is not planning on marrying her lover, and the two of them are not going to have any babies. Her life at the end of the book is the mirror opposite of the life she was leading at the beginning. The book leaves the impression that she is a different person from the woman she was at the beginning, and as all such "journey of self discovery" books must, we have a happy ending.

But is this really believable? Certainly, Gilbert could not have ended the book ambiguously--a book that ended with her feeling dissatisfied and uncertain what to do next would simply not have been one that would be published. I left the book feeling a little bit manipulated--played, if you will--by this woman.

Think about it, after all. Here is a woman who is in a terrible place in her life--her divorce got ugly and dragged on and on. Her rebound relationship also fell apart. She was left with very little after the settlement. So, she proposes a book where she will spend four months in each of three countries to find herself, or find balance, or something. How likely is it that at the end of a single year she will have any real handle on The Right Way to live her life?

I'll tell you. Not very likely at all. BUT--it can be written as though she has found The Right Way, and she doesn't have to reveal any glitches, or failures, or anything negative that happened. And I think that is what happened. It all looks lovely at the end, but I doubt that her life stayed as idyllic as it looked while she was on vacation with her new lover in the South Pacific.

NOBODY'S life ever ends up as idyllic as it looks while on vacation.

So, here's the problem I have with this book: I think we have been manipulated into thinking that Elizabeth Gilbert ate and prayed her way into balance, which was actualized on Bali. I think she was not all that different a person at the end than at the beginning of the book, and all the "growth" the book presents is illusory.

What makes me say that? The first thing that really rang false for me was the night she met her Brazilian lover. She hardly noticed him at all that night. Instead, she met a Welsh ex-pat named Ian, and they talked for hours. She says at least twice "I really liked this guy." At the end of the evening, they part without exchanging contact information, and Ian says "We will meet again when [the gods] think it's right."

And she goes home and obsesses over this guy. She relives everything they said, and projects a future with him. She starts to worry about where they would live, how she would be able to continue her career from Bali. She essentially abandons everything about herself in order to mold herself around this new man. This is David Redux--everything about this monologue is exactly the same endless dither she used to do about David.

Remember, she doesn't know where he lives, she doesn't have a phone number for him. He doesn't have her address or her email. Even Prince Charming had Cinderella's shoe to help him find her again! Ian and Liz have less than that. So, we are treated to the very real idea that if Ian ever called her again, she'd dive right back into the same kind of clingy dependent relationship that she had with David less than a year before. Everything about this spells disaster.

Except that she doesn't run into him again. Ever. (As far as we know.) The infatuation burns itself out, we are left to suppose, because she doesn't mention him again after that one experience. It seems that the only thing that allowed her to move herself out of the rut of bad relationship patterns was sheer luck in not seeing this guy again! How enlightened is that?

Second, the final scenes of the book feel set up and manipulated. Gilbert ends the book describing a vacation she is taking on another island close to Bali. This is an island she has visited before, at the nadir of her divorce and breakup. Here she took a vow of silence, and meditated and tried to quiet her turbulent emotions. She describes beautifully the process of examining her fear. anger and shame, and accepting those feelings. She says she invites those things into her heart to rest. She reassures them (and herself) that they are loved, accepted, and that "it is over." After ten days, she finds herself at peace.

SO--why were we walked through her time in India, if she was already able to do this? And why should we believe that her experience in India is any more permanent than her island retreat had been? Even before she started this book project, she had learned how to let things go. Her biggest revelation in India is that she has to let David go. But does she--really? She has at least one night in Bali when she considers calling David to see if he wants to get back together. Sure, she doesn't act on it--so far as she tells us--but the fact that she hasn't really let him go makes me suspicious of how much of this book is really fiction.

So, with these questions in my mind, what do I have at the end of this book? I have a woman who had a bad divorce and a bad rebound relationship. From the time she realized she didn't want to be married anymore until the peaceful ending of this book was roughly 4 or 5 years. Look, even without eating pasta in Italy, meditating in India, and vacationing in Bali, she might have felt better--and felt wiser too. As far as I can see, she was lucky to meet a fabulous man who seems to love her just the enveloping way she wanted her previous men to love her. She doesn't need to cling to Felipe, because he clings to her. He is, she says, molding his life around her--so she doesn't have to mold her life around him. But the relationship dynamic isn't really all that different. Her expectations of love haven't really changed. She is a little older, a little more at peace, a little wiser--maybe. And not necessarily because of anything that has happened in this book.

Lots of people love this book, and I would be very interested in hearing from those of you who did. Do you have any of the misgivings I have about this?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert--Part I

Yet another book that everyone is reading. But the closer I came to reading it (the TBR list is particularly long right now), the more I ran into people who did not love it. Did not like it, to tell the truth. Which surprised me, given its ubiquitousness.

Although that is probably a good thing, because it lowered my expectations, and no matter how good a book is, most cannot live up to their positive press.

I am now one third of the way through, having traveled through Italy with Liz Gilbert, and I must say I see the strengths and the weaknesses I was warned about.

First off, I have a lot of sympathy with where Our Liz found herself at the beginning of the book. Turning 30 (more or less) is a hard thing, not because an age that ends with a "0" is a particularly traumatic thing in itself. Rather, 30 is an age when you start to truly cross over out of adolescence. During your twenties, in America, you are working your way through college, graduate school, first jobs. You have prepared yourself for a career and life with which you have very little visceral experience, but you have already invested heavily of time, energy and money.

Think about it--the standard American model is that you select a college when you are about 17--we have only just decided you can be trusted with a driver's license, then we throw you into a decision that will affect many many choices about the rest of your life. You select a major, you prepare yourself for what you think you want, often having little or no way to know is that is really the life you think it will be.

Liz Gilbert starts her book huddling on the bathroom floor, sobbing, suffocating in the life she has chosen. The plan was that she and her husband would spend their twenties being young, expecting that by the time they were 30, they would be ready to settle down, buy a big house, start a family. What happened was that at 30, Gilbert found that she wasn't ready. She had the husband, she had the big house, she had the life she thought she would want at 30.

Only problem was that she didn't want it.

And it was a physical rejection she experienced. Her body wouldn't let her sleep, wouldn't let her breath between sobs. She was desperately unhappy, and she truly couldn't explain why. She had a wonderful life, a life a lot of women would give significant body parts to have. Why wouldn't she want that life?

But these things are not logical, and cannot be explained. And they cause a lot of pain. She went through a lot of pain herself before she even began to understand what it was she wanted; then the pain started to spread, and her husband got hurt as well.

It wasn't his fault, you know. They both made this plan, and it was a good plan for him. Nothing had changed to make it a bad plan--it was just that his wife didn't want it any more. And how can that feel? You were together, on a life path, and then suddenly you weren't. And his hurt made him mean, just as it made her miserable and desperate.

She didn't want to hurt him, but the only way NOT to hurt him was to push herself forward into a life she desperately didn't want. There are no good choices in that situation, and I have a lot of sympathy for both of them.

Which has affected my experience of this book. As I read this, I see much that I can relate to, much I can admire; but I'm not sure I would like Elizabeth Gilbert if I met her in person. I'm not sure I would enjoy spending the hours in her company that I am spending with her book. So I see why the people who didn't like this book felt that way.

The book is also curiously distancing; she spends the first third of the book in Italy, learning to love the culture, the food, the experience of living in a world view fundamentally different from her upbringing. And yet, the experience on the page is a bit flat. She admits that she doesn't see Rome architecturally, historically, or any of a number of ways that would bring it alive for me. It's good food (which I love, of course, but even that is a bit dull), and how she feels about it. And since I'm not invested emotionally in her, it's a bit off-putting. She doesn't show me Rome so I can appreciate it and share--she shows me how Rome affects her, in a way that keeps me out of Italy.

So, the solution, I guess, is to bloody well go to Rome myself, and write that book. Right?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen

This is a book that I greatly enjoyed, probably more for the setting than for the more usual strengths of a novel. To be honest, the characterization was rather thin, the plot rather predictable where it wasn't straining credulity. Still, it was a greatly enjoyable ride and one I would recommend.

The tale is told by Jacob Jankowsky, a ninety-some year old man remembering when he was twenty-three years old working in a small circus for a season during the Depression. We are introduced to Jacob as a young man in the middle of a crisis resulting in a man's death and a stampede of circus animals. Following this prologue, we meet the elderly Jacob in "assisted living" where he has earned himself a reputation as uncooperative because he insists on his own humanity. As he argues, "There's nothing wrong with me, I'm just old." He is old; very old, but he has all his faculties as well as his teeth.

A small circus has come to town and set up within sight of the facility. It is all the residents talk about, and one man makes himself interesting to the group by claiming he used to carry water for the elephants. Jacob calls him a liar: he knows how much water an elephant drinks, and no one could carry that much water. (I looked this up, and an elephant can drink up to 50 gallons of water a day--that's 400 pounds of water. Daily.)

This leads Jacob to remember his days with the Benzini Brothers Circus; a "grift" circus that made money on surruptitious stripper shows and false "freak shows;" that obtains new clothes for its members by stealing them from wash lines in the towns they pass through; where the owner regularly withholds pay to keep the workers in line; where strong men "redlight" anyone they perceive as a troublemaker, throwing them off the train while in motion, sometimes even off of train trestles.

Gruen does a pretty skillful job of getting her narrator into the circus in a fashion that allows him to see all the different castes: because make no mistake, there is a strictly defined hierarchy, and there are not many people in a circus who would get the chance to see the other levels. As the novel starts, Jacob is finishing his degree in veterinary medicine at Cornell, with plans to join his father's practice after graduation. Just before the end of term, he learns that his parents have both been killed in a car accident, have mortgaged their property to the hilt, and since the Depression means no one can afford to pay the vet, there is nothing left. It all goes to the bank. Jacob travels home to identify the bodies of his parents; the shock of it all comes to a head during his final exams, and he simply cannot concentrate enough to write them. He walks away from everything--literally--and after about two days realizes he's lost, hungry, penniless, homeless, and has nowhere to go. He decides to climb a train, with the idea he will get off at the next town and try to find work. It turns out to be a circus train, and the stage is set.

The men in the train car he boards are roustabouts--working men who raise and lower the tents, move the equipment, feed and muck the animals, and are generally the muscle of the circus. Jacob is first put to work cleaning out the animal cars, soon graduates to herding customers into the tents, works security for the cooch tent (the stripper show), and finally gets assigned as the circus vet. Here he meets the Equestrian Director, Augus Rosenbluth (his new boss), and Marlena, the bosses wife and a performer herself.

You could probably write the plot from here. Jacob falls in love with Marlena, her husband turns out to be a violent man, a climactic circus disaster occurs which takes August's life, closes down the Benzini Brothers Circus for good, and allows Jacob and Marlena to marry. This is not the interesting part of the book. What makes this book so enjoyable are the scenes for the circus world--the basic mechanics of moving and feeding so many people and animals, for example. There is the side of the circus the public sees: the spangles, the tricks, the parades--which contrasts sharply with the inside view of the circus: distrust, envy and anger between the performers and the working men; the way the black men have to hide so they are never glimpsed by the public; the hard decisions that are made about sick animals; the sharp business practices to keep the show going.

There is some tenderness as well. The first man to help Jacob get a job later becomes paralyzed from drinking contaminated "jake"--illegal alcohol. Jacob protects the man, giving up his own bedroll out of loyalty and concern. Ultimately, however, Jacob cannot save him (or others) from being redlighted, and his two closest friends die. Jacob earns the affection of several of the animals as well, especially Bobo the chimp, and Rosie the elephant. We see him struggle with his innate need to care for animals, and the business needs of the circus, uncertain where his loyalty must lie. In the end, Jacob champions the animals in his care, and finds how to be true to himself.

I enjoyed the breezy writing, the tour of this exotic world. The ending is a bit fanciful: at 93, Jacob rejoins a circus--which strains credulity, but at the same time ends the book on such an upbeat note that it's hard not to smile.

There are literary elements I've not yet plumbed, as well. According to the author interview in the back of the book, Jacob's story is based on the story of Jacob in the Bible. That might be interesting to pursue. Also, there is an inherent parallel between Jacob in the nursing home, and the animals in the circus: both are helpless, dependent on others to provide what they are used to getting for themselves. This is the stuff just made for book clubs, and mine is scheduled to discuss it November 15th.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Harlequin, by Laurell K. Hamilton

I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Laurell Hamilton's works. On the surface, it's just hard to admit to reading them--just try and summarize what's going on. Well, it takes place in St. Louis, where there are vampires running strip clubs, werewolves and wereleopards and wererats and werehyenas and werelions and zombies and . . .

See? I have now lost all credibility as a critical reader of contemporary fiction. This is not prize-wining midlist fiction--this is the kind of stuff that you get at the cash register aisles at the grocery store. Just look at the cover and see if my credibility remains:

Oh yeah. The fact that it's hardcover only means that I can take that picture off, which slightly compensates for the fact that this stuff sells at typical hardcover price. Which I paid. Because once I knew it was out, I couldn't wait for it to get to the library. Or to paperback.

And I'm not really sure why.

This is about book 15 in the Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series, and it's right in line with its immediate predecessors. And just as incredible. And I mean that literally. In-credible, as in unbelievable. But I keep reading them.

Anita Blake started as a necromancer, who used her talents on a hired basis to raise zombies. In a move that makes me laugh, the most often repeat customers are lawyers, who need to find out where the will is hidden, or who the killer was, or some other matter of evidence and estate. Trust lawyers to hire zombies, eh? At the start of the series, Anita did that job full time, while occasionally serving as a consultant to the police on crimes committed by non-humans. She had studied vampires and the "furry community" (meaning all those were-animals), and was able to provide more information than the police had on their own. Her necrotic abilities gave her some psychic powers not ordinarily available either, and for the first half dozen or so books, she primarily solved violent preternatural crimes. She started out with a boyfriend (Richard) who had caught lycanthropy from a vaccine, and was twisted with self-hatred for what he viewed as the monster in him. She was also avoiding being courted by Jean-Claude, a powerful vampire--since part of her job involved killing vampires convicted of a crime, it seemed like a conflict of interest. Plus, she saw vampires as monsters herself.

And the violence was a big part of all of this. Lots of blood, lots of gore, lots of scary scary monsters and magic and violence. I am not a big fan of violence, and I don't find blood to be anything but offputting. As the books went on, Hamilton seemed to find herself in a bind--the books demanded escalating violence, but there were only so many ways to do that, and she was running out of ideas. She had to change something, and so she switched to sex.

Which is not to say there isn't any blood--there's still a LOT of that. Psychotic mercenaries, serial killing vampires, were-animals with anger issues and powerful claws--someone usually ends up dead one way or another, which is typical for thriller kind of novels: science fiction/vampire thriller detective novels, I guess, which is (oddly enough) a growing genre. But increasinly, the focus is on the relationships between the characters--personal relationships, sexual relationships, political alliances, and the way the different powers of the different preternaturals combine and divide.

Which is maybe why I like these--Hamilton takes time to show that werewolves are organized differently than leopards would be, based on the survival tactics of the animals. Vampires have laws that govern their behavior--reasonable, given that they are essentially immortal, inhumanly powerful, and capable of creating their own armys of completely loyal vampires--so vampire relations are marked by deceit, cunning, hidden agendas, and political maneuvering. When vampires of different strengths and powers get together, there is strict protocol which cannot be ignored for any reason. Meanwhile, the werewolves only respect physical dominance and simply fight out their differences.

We see Anita come to accept that humanity inherent in the different preternaturals--accepting that the "monsters" are not necessarily monstrous. Although they are just as capable of inhuman acts as humans are. She falls in love with Jean-Claude, and grows over the course of the books in ways she would never have imagined at the start. She thought, at the beginning, that she could be happy married to Richard, living the white picket fence life--maybe. But as time goes on, she finds that his self-loathing gets in the way of his ability to accept her and the way her live has developed. In this most recent book, it looks like the two of them may break up for good--one that has been a long time coming, in the way it happens in real life too.

Sure, realism isn't a big thing in these books. For example, it's a little hard to accept that Anita has all the different powers she has gained over time--apparently, no one in this alternate history have had as many different types of affinity for were-animals (without being one herself), or such strong vampire powers (without being one herself), or the ability to form power triumvirates with other species while remaining technically human. But some of the emotional power of these books feels true--true enough for fiction, anyway.

Interestingly, despite the growing populations of all these different meta-humans, we still see a lot of prejudice and hatred, which spices up the pot. The head of the Preternatural Crimes Team is completely squicked out that Anita is "dating" a vampire--as she "dates" more and more different men/creatures, he can't stand to even look at her and doesn't call her onto cases any more. When they are thrown together--as they are in this book--he can't stop himself from interrogating her about her personal life, even as there are preternatural criminals to catch. Richard can't stand how Anita is comfortable with the "monsters" and lives a life that involves sleeping with far too many different men. He is possessive, significantly homophobic, and unwilling to acknowledge that maybe. . .just maybe. . .he's stuck with the life he has. Anita is learning to accept that her life is going to have to be unlike the one she thought she would have--it's the nature of what has happened to her. Richard cannot. And again--that feels like a real emotional battle.

So, I guess I'm going to keep reading these, and being embarrassed by the fact that I do. Maybe I'll come to some form of acceptance too. . .you never know.

First Among Sequels, by Jasper Fforde

I can't believe I haven't written about this one yet. I adore Jasper Fforde. If you are, like me, a geeky English major, there is nothing funnier than The Eyre Affair, the original Thursday Next adventure. Set in a highly literary "alternative history," the Thursday Next series stars Our Heroine, a lowly government worker in the SpecOps department. Her beat? Counterfeit classics--a truckload of Spenser with a street value of millions? She'll stop it. Need help verifying a lost Shakespeare play? She's got the equipment. If it's written in ball point pen in a lined, spiral bound notebook. . .authenticating is the easy part. Convincing the owner is the hard part.

It is clear that Fforde loves literature, and he loves words. He has created a version of England that is populated with the kind of literary groupies most of us wish we could be. Door to door evangelists for the theory that Francis Bacon wrote the Shakespeare plays. At diner booths, there are no juke boxes. Instead, there are "WillSpeak" machines: put in your coins and get a puppet reciting Shakespeare monologues.

Once you have accepted that this England is only tangentially related to our world, the pseudoscience of it becomes even funnier. Reverse bioengineering has created a world in which woolly mammoth migrate through back gardens, and there are no ducks, but dodos are wonderful pets. Thursday's father is a member of the ChronoGuard--time travelling policemen who enforce history. Thursday's father has gone rogue, and the Guard are after him.

According to Fforde, time-travel is hard to write. The inconsistencies start to pile up, and after about the third book, he was making promises to himself that he would never write any more time-travel books. First Among Sequels is his delivery on that promise.

He had to finish up the plot lines he had started, which took him until book 4 of the series. This latest is either Book 5 of the old series, or Book 1 of a new series, and in it he writes himself free of the ChronoGuard permanently. Which is really all you need to know about the plot.

Because the plot is the engine that steams you through the book, but the fun is in the details. It helps if you've read a lot of classical/canonical fiction, because then the jokes are funnier. I happened to have gotten Cold Comfort Farm from Mr. Sweetie for my birthday, and so Fforde's comment about "something nasty in the woodshed" made more sense to me than if I hadn't read it. But you don't have to be particularly well read to appreciate that the bad guy's name is Jack Schitt.

And don't ask, just go to for the complete post-reading experience!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

John Adams, by David McCullough--Part I

This is still on my TBR (To Be Read) pile, as I am working my way through it. S-l-o-w-l-y. Because it is non-fiction of the drier sort. Unlike The Glass Castle, reviewed below, John Adams does not aspire to novelistic elegance. This is history, and the goal is to put in ALL the information.

Well, maybe not ALL of everything McCullough knows, since he's also published a book just about 1776 (called, creatively enough, 1776). But the goal here is to trace what all Adams did in his life, and the writing comes secondarily.

I picked this book up after having seen the play 1776 (no relation to the McCullough tome). In it, Adams and Thomas Jefferson on amiable colleagues, both seeking the same goal of independence. Yet my memory of their presidential histories is that they were quite vivid antagonists, and the brief period of Adams' presidency was Jefferson's vice presidency, and they fell apart decisively.

A not small reason for picking this up was also my father, who has indicated that he felt TJ was overrated, and Adams was unfairly uncelebrated. This intrigued me--my (admittedly somewhat limited) studies in history had made me admire TJ quite a bit, and of course I love Monticello--a man who did all the TJ did, at a relatively young age as well--how was he overrated?

Well, I'm about halfway through McCullough's book now, and I see where my dad is coming from. The timeline is post Declaration, but pre-Washington presidency. John Adams is stuck in Europe trying to get loans and recognition from European countries for this new nation. No one is really buying into the idea that America will stay independent. So, here's poor JA, away from his wife--AGAIN--being patronized by the French. And TJ is back home in Virginia, with his wife and family.

Then JA gets sent to Holland, to try to get some major bank loans to fund the new country--and nobody will even acknowledge him. And TJ is back home in Virginia, with his wife and family (and at some point fleeing the British, which is read contemporaneously as contemptuous). Here is JA, setting up the first American embassy in the world, while TJ is STILL home in Virginia.

Eventually, TJ comes to Paris to work with JA, and they are great friends. However, TJ just CANNOT stop shopping! He buys a big house, he buys fine clothes, he buys crates and crates of books, and gloves, and horses, and. . . and. . .and. . . Meanwhile, Abigail and her family come to France as well, and are barely making ends meet on their stipend from Congress. TJ is also short of funds, but doesn't seem to be able to make the connection that Lack of Funds + Compulsive Shopping = Debts. He laments his debts, he keeps careful track of each and everything he buys---but he never actually adds up the costs nor compares it to his income.

Then, JA is sent to the Court of St. James as the (first ever!) American ambassador to England. And boy, is he snubbed. The British firmly believe that the colonies will return to English rule--after all, why wouldn't they? So why take this silly little obnoxious man seriously? No one speaks to him, no one acknowledges him, no one is willing to discuss any trade or fishing rights or anything the new country needs to have to live. And TJ? Still off shopping in France.

TJ is even confronted (as he should be) about the hypocracy of insisting on independence for white men while continuing to hold slaves. His answer? Is only that if he freed his slaves, he could never pay back all his debts. . .

So, perhaps the romantic images of TJ as a giant among men is overstated. And John Adams worked tirelessly and without much salve for his ego to assure the success of the American Experiment, and his efforts really are not broadly understood. The precariousness of the new country is hard to understand from our point in history, and the fact that it succeeded at all probably has more to do with Adams' ceaseless efforts than with Jefferson's elegant Declaration.

So, we'll see how things progress. I have some hard feelings against JA for the Alien and Sedition Act he instigated, and how it was used. TJ, at least, didn't resort to silencing his critics--but again, it's hard to understand those times. That portion of history still lies ahead, and it will be interesting to see how McCullough handles that and Adams' appointment of the "Midnight Judges," which for all it's potential for abuse gave us the Supreme Court's balancing powers as we know them.