Sunday, September 14, 2008

Other Places (Part III) Italy, India, Indonesia: Book Report; "Eat, Pray, Love"

"Eat, Pray, Love"is an argument in favor of the American Woman.

Author Liz Gilbert starts out making an argument against the American Woman, against Liz Gilbert, and ends up losing her benefit.

If you follow.

There is much to hate in Gilbert, especially if you're a writer - and you're not alone - because she hates herself while spinning her rather loathsome and self-indulgent tale of relationship angst while globetrotting on the publisher's dime.

Those noble few who frequent my blog know full-well the extent to which the highway scribe dislikes self-referential writing; so much so he refers to himself as somebody else thanks to the double-edged anonymity of the Internet.

So Gilbert's perpetual "I this," and "I that," were doing much to prevent him from finishing her self-story.

Yes, yes, you're saying, "highway scribe, you pretentious, left-leaning weenie, you'd never approach this popular dross with any seriousness anyway!"

Not true.

Good writers read everything, because they are, or should be, good listeners to be successful themselves. The scribe is in the habit of finishing off a popular slab such as, "The DaVinci Code" - the ending for which he did not quite understand - and then washing it down with a little Tennyson, which he doesn't always get, either.

"Understanding": that's another way of saying "truth," because the truth is already out there, but you've got to decipher it.

Gilbert is in search of truth, too. Actively fleeing a failed marriage and a botched follow-up relationship into what ends up being some very nice travel writing.

Why Americans have to go overseas to heal is something of a mystery, but here you have it. Abroad, her own personal basket seems to shrink before the wonders abounding and those of you who've done an expatriate turn know this to be something of a rule.

In Italy, she begins her transformation from neurotic, underfed wreck, to a well-stuffed denizen of Rome, where her yoga mat remains underneath the bed because, Rome, it turns out, "doesn't do yoga."

But it eats and eats well. In Italy, when you walk down the streets of a city or town, the scent of food mugs you, the sight of it attractively displayed in windows designed for the purpose of seducing completely.

In a forgiving environment where everybody's on the same culinary tip, Gilbert allows herself to put on a bunch of pounds and settle comfortably into the fleshy cushion she has morphed into.

She makes being chunky sound sexy and, as such, begins to win the reader over.

And though there is no string of adjectives that can successfully convey the magic of the Italian cucina, the authoress manages to make us hungry through her writing.

And that's no mean trick.

In India, Gilbert settles into an Ashram, becomes a little thinner, and struggles with the regimen of chants; one in particular she can't seem to conquer.

"Eat, Pray, Love," is the ultimate globalization sampler. Only in today's crazy culture mash-up could a guy named Richard from Texas, who refers to her as "Groceries," do more to move the narrator's self-realization along than the absent Yogi boss-lady.

The scribe is a sworn secular, a militant non-believer who has adopted Luis Bunuel's response to all questions about religion: "Still an Atheist Thank God."

Sneering and snarling at Gilbert's religious quest, the scribe found himself aligned with the author by the end of the trip's India phase, because in all that chanting and fasting she hits upon the power found in "resisting our urges" and unwittingly applies her writer's discipline to life's other areas.

Writers will recognize these while watching Gilbert come to realize them for herself.

Well-nourished, more spiritually balanced and happy, the the lady heads onto Bali, Indonesia, where she does some fine cultural writing. Perhap's it's just as good as that she does in the other two places, but Bali is an interesting study: a Buddhist isle in a massive Muslim archipelago with a strict social code where everyone operates from a strong clan base and shares the same name, or two.

Here is where Gilbert won highwayscribery's heart. Her self-loathing over, it's hard to loathe her in turn. Confident after a year in other countries, she finds her American-ness in time to keep a woman whom she's helped in a remarkable way from turning the whole thing sour with a scam.

In this new-found strength, she relocates her sexuality and nowhere is the American woman's sexuality more to be admired than in traditional settings.

By way of related digression, the highway scribe can tell you he went off to Spain years ago both to write his novel "Vedette," and land a Spanish wife.

On earlier, shorter journeys he'd found the dated femininity of Spanish women completely winning, their Madonna-like (the virgin, not the singer) discretion a safe most worthy of cracking.

But once committed fully to Spanish life he couldn't crack the safe without surrendering his independence and direction to the ladies' families. He could not pry them loose from their clamshells. It was all of them or it was...


After a while it was shocking to learn how, in Andalusia, so few women had their own cars, how impossible it was to find a single one not being escorted by their brother, mother, or some other, how mothers beat their daughters with brooms into the house when he walked down calle Larga.

And so it is with Gilbert who tries a few shoes on before settling on the right fit, an older Brazilian fellow, who is an exotic choice chosen on an exotic journey.

Gilbert understands the rules of Bali, but is proactive in the most positive American sense, when she tries to infuse a little modernity into a situation that is working, and harshly so, against a local she has come to love.

She sticks her nose into things and, as an American, you like seeing her do it, because we'd like to respect local customs, if we only had some of our own to guide us.

Gilbert heads home finally happy with essentially the same person she left as, but one she understands better.

And while some of the hip gab and dated material work to the detriment of her tale's shelf-life, it delivers in the knowledge, fun, and wisdom departments.

And that makes for a Good Read.

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