Normally I hate it when authors self-promote by discussing how bad someone else’s book is and how much better theirs is. But it’s impossible for me to discuss Elizabeth Gilbert’s obnoxious memoir without at least mentioning my own (much better!) one, All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit In India, as they have some notable similarities and when I describe mine, people keep asking me if I’ve read hers. ("Oh, your book is about how you became a cynical atheist after growing up surrounded by crazy American hippies on an ashram in India? In that case, you will love this other book about how an American woman learns the meaning of life and finds enlightenment, self-worth, and joy on a beautiful peaceful ashram in India!")

Obviously, my own miserable ashram childhood contributed to my detestation of Eat Pray Love. (To be fair, Gilbert’s ashram, which is not mine, sounds well-run and sensible, if you’re into that kind of thing.) So I'm making that disclosure, but honestly, there are many other reasons to detest Eat Pray Love.

But since I cannot type the name of my own memoir without some wistful hope that readers will be inspired to seek it out and purchase ten additional copies to give as gifts to their loved ones, I cannot even disclaim any intention of self-promotion. Given that, all I can do is apologize in advance.

Sorry!

Gilbert is a rich white American writer undergoing a painful divorce when she becomes suicidally depressed, finds God while collapsed in a puddle of tears on her bathroom floor, and obtains a hefty book advance to live abroad for a year and write about it. She decides to explore pleasure in Rome, spirituality in an unnamed Indian ashram (spiritual center), and balance in Bali.

In Rome she eats lots of excellent food and banishes depression with sheer force of will and grace of God. In India she has amazing spiritual experiences via meditation and introspection, including getting zapped by an inner blue light. (The ashram section, unsurprisingly considering that it mostly takes place inside Gilbert’s head as she attempts to empty her mind of thought, is narcissistic and boring.) In Bali she hangs out with two traditional healers, raises money to help one of them buy a house, and finds True Love with a sexy, confident, passionate, loving, sophisticated, and generally perfect Brazilian man who is just like her, only older, male, and did I mention perfect?

I finally forced myself to read this book, which from other people’s recommendations (“She goes to an ashram and has amazing spiritual experiences! You’ll love it!”) I felt sure I’d hate, because I want to get into travel writing and I wanted to see what made this particular travel book a bestseller. The answer, once I finished it (with increasing hatred of the smug, self-absorbed, self-righteous Gilbert), was clear:

1. Wish-fulfillment. Who wouldn’t want to be paid to spend a year abroad, going wherever you want and doing whatever you want? I sure would! Moreover, she gets over her awful divorce, breaks her cycle of bad romantic relationships via True Love, does a substantial good deed, finds spiritual peace and fulfillment, and eats the world’s best pizza. And then comes home and publishes a best-seller.

2. It tells a certain cadre of readers— middle to upper class Americans with vaguely New Agey leanings— exactly what they already believe is true: that enlightenment can be found in India, that personal fulfillment is a profound and meaningful goal, that all things natural and Asian are superior to all things manufactured and Western, that charity is satisfying and worth doing but you have to be kind but firm with your poor Third World recipients or they’ll rip you off, and that if you try hard and navel-gaze and seek spirituality in exotic foreign lands you’ll be rewarded with everything you’ve ever dreamed of, right down to a fairy-tale romance.

3. Gilbert is a pretty good travel writer in the few parts when she’s looking outward rather than inward. Portions of the book are well-written and funny. (Those portions are concentrated in the first third.)

I find it difficult to separate my loathing of the book from my loathing of Gilbert from my memories of people and attitudes I loathed at the ashram where I spent my childhood. Her attitude about antidepressants (“I really needed them, but you peasants who lack my superior contempt of them shouldn’t be allowed to get them as easily as I did”) mirrors an attitude about India that I often got from Westerners at the ashram, and which oozes from every page of Gilbert’s memoir: “I need my Western medicine and appliances and education and opportunities, but you’re actually lucky not to have them because that stuff sucks, really, and anyway you have herbs and yoga which is so much better. Bye-bye! I had a great spiritual experience in your beautiful country which I will treasure forever as I relax in my New York penthouse.”

I’m not saying that herbs and yoga are worthless, or that Westerners should be banned from having spiritual experiences in Asia. It’s the self-centeredness, entitlement, lack of perspective, and lack of empathy for the actual occupants of the country which bothers me.

Gilbert does show kindness and compassion when she raises money to buy a Balinese woman and her family a house. But I wish she’d sat down and had a discussion with the woman about what she wanted, and what she would like Gilbert to do to help—and that, when the deal got rocky, Gilbert had sat down again and discussed both of their concerns instead of bullying the woman for her own good. Openness can go wrong, and high-handed condescension can produce good results. But the latter is not how you deal with people whom you consider your equals.

In short: hated it, hated it, hated it. Hated her. Hated her perfect Brazilian boyfriend. Even hated her guru, and she doesn't even appear in the book except as a perfectly enlightened and compassionate gaze via a photograph. In conclusion: hated it. Buy my book instead!

From: [identity profile] mamculuna.livejournal.com


I hated it, too. It trivialized something I take very seriously.

And I found the whole Bali thing completely negated everything she'd supposedly come to understand in India.

I'd be more specific but really don't want to look at it again.

However, it's become a little private litmus test for me: if people start raving about how great it is, I know that they don't see the world the way I do.
ext_6382: Blue-toned picture of cow with inquisitive expression (Default)

From: [identity profile] bravecows.livejournal.com


Gilbert does show kindness and compassion when she raises money to buy a Balinese woman and her family a house.

That part really upset me. :( Not the part where she bought Balinese friend a house, obviously, but the part where Balinese woman rips her off and Brazilian boyfriend is, "You are so kind and compassionate, Elizabeth Gilbert, I did not want to say before. But you can't trust these natives! It is not their fault, they are like innocent children who you must guide but not spoil!" and then Elizabeth Gilbert, yes, bullies friend. I am glad you've read and reviewed this, because I felt super uncomfortable about that part but didn't want to be whiny oversensitive calling-racism person, so -- but you've summed up the reason for my discomfort perfectly.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


And the Brazilian boyfriend says, "I'm not being racist or colonialist! They're like that because of the culture of poverty!"

And Gilbert is all, "Whew, good, I'm not being racist when I totally lie to and bully my supposed friend!" (Because being classist is so much better!)

I mean, it did work out for the best and the initial impulse was a good one, but the way it worked out is not how you deal with a friend. It's how a reasonable adult would deal with a child or someone who is mentally incapacitated and is incapable of making rational decisions in their own best interest. I can't imagine Gilbert acting that way with an American (or Italian.)


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From: [identity profile] laurashapiro.livejournal.com


Thanks so much for this review. I keep seeing the book (I frequent travel sections in bookstores) and wondering whether I'd like it, but I always kinda thought it would reek too much of privilege and make me want to hurl things.

If you're looking for good travel writing that won't make you want to hurl things, I recommend M.F.K. Fisher and Bruce Chatwin.

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From: [identity profile] telophase.livejournal.com


I have stayed far, far away from EPL, and I see it's for very good reason.

If you haven't read any of Tim Cahill's travel writing, do so. He tends towards adventure travel, but is well worth reading. Nigel Barley's The Innocent Anthropologist : Notes from a Mud Hut (formerly titled Adventures in a Mud Hut: An Innocent Anthropologist Abroad), its sequel A Plague of Caterpillars and Not a Hazardous Sport, about bringing a group of craftsmen from Indonesia to London to build a traditional rice barn in the Museum of Mankind. ETA: Oops, forgot to finish. The first two are about his fieldwork in Cameroon among the Dowayo, and is funny as hell and should be required reading for all starry-eyed idealist students who want to become anthropologists, since it talks about how it really is out there. XD

Tim Frost is also a travel writer in the vein of Bill Bryson - self-deprecating and slightly bitchy. He bought a purple suit and a Rolls-Royce and traveled around Europe in it.

And back in the mid-90s, Laura Resnick put out a travel book about overlanding through Africa from a small press. I mostly remember that it was obviously accidentally the pre-copy edited version that got published, since it was full of typos, and that she cheerfully admitted that her Great Spiritual Insight Gained From Travel was that, when doing strenuous travel, she's a complete bitch. ETA2: The Amazon reviews are uniformly positive about it. I'll have to see if I can find my copy and reread it.

From: [identity profile] leiliaxf.livejournal.com


her Great Spiritual Insight Gained From Travel was that, when doing strenuous travel, she's a complete bitch

Hey cool! That must mean that I'm an highly evolved spiritual being because I can be grumpypsychobeeyotch under pressure *g*

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From: [identity profile] kateelliott.livejournal.com


She got PAID to go on her journey? Oh, please.

From: [identity profile] ladiesbane.livejournal.com


And, not to be a jerk, but I seem to recall her so-called Journey to Enlightenment began with a failed marriage -- which went under because she never really wanted children, but somehow convinced herself that marriage to a millionaire would make her want to. Turns out she didn't after all.

Not that she should have had an unwanted child, obviously, but that she shouldn't have married a guy whose sole requirement was offspring. She might have been ambivalent about childbearing, but she was all of one mind about marrying a rich person. This sugary brat went from shallow to shallower.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)

From: [personal profile] keilexandra


I find it difficult to separate my loathing of the book from my loathing of Gilbert from my memories of people and attitudes I loathed at the ashram where I spent my childhood.

This reminds me of my review of the LOGHORREA anthology. As hard as I tried--and I waited a good few weeks between my first reading and my rereading of notes, which only brought up the same wave of loathing--I couldn't get past Leslie What's portrayal of psoriasis. Reviewers strive for objectivity, or at least acknowledged and compensated bias; but I think that at some point, personal experiences will trigger a reaction too intense to overcome, even consciously.

All of which relates only tangentially to your post, since as a content atheist and skeptic (meditation=good; spiritual enlightenment=WTF?), I haven't and don't plan on reading Gilbert's book.

From: [identity profile] loligo.livejournal.com


Just last week, my stepmother (who traveled to India with my father and some Indian friends last year) recommended this book to me -- which inclined me to think I'd probably hate it. Bingo!

I did tell her about your book during that conversation, but now I think I'd better get her a copy for Christmas....

From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


OK, OK, I'll buy your book! Sheesh.

I imagine you have read Calvin Trillin, but if not, you should - he has published a number of collections of essays about food with an emphasis on travel, and one about travel with an emphasis on food. They are very funny. (He has written many other things as well.)

From: [identity profile] amberley.livejournal.com

Tim Cahill


Even though I already own your (excellent) book I'm tempted to buy another copy in gratitude that you saved me from suffering through Gilbert's book.

For a better example of travel writing, I recommend Tim Cahill's adventure travel books, especially the first two, Jaguars Ripped My Flesh and A Wolverine is Chewing On My Leg. They're funny and interesting.

I hope you do write a travel book, and I look forward to reading it someday.

From: [identity profile] faithhopetricks.livejournal.com


Dude, I hope Adrian does not mind I am going to fly out to LA, get down on one knee and ask you to MARRY ME RACHEL MARRY ME.

It’s the self-centeredness, entitlement, lack of perspective, and lack of empathy for the actual occupants of the country which bothers me.

Yes. That, EXACTLY. YES.

Her attitude about antidepressants (“I really needed them, but you peasants who lack my superior contempt of them shouldn’t be allowed to get them as easily as I did”) mirrors an attitude about India that I often got from Westerners at the ashram, and which oozes from every page of Gilbert’s memoir: “I need my Western medicine and appliances and education and opportunities, but you’re actually lucky not to have them because that stuff sucks, really, and anyway you have herbs and yoga which is so much better. Bye-bye! I had a great spiritual experience in your beautiful country which I will treasure forever as I relax in my New York penthouse.”

TRUE.FUCKING.STORY.

-- Also everyone reading this, you should totally buy Rachel's memoir! I read it and loved it and have reread it several times, and it is hilarious and heartbreaking and at the end v moving and young scrappy Rachel is awesome. YES she is my friend, but if I didn't think it was kickass, I wouldn't say anything about buying it.

From: [identity profile] jeremytblack.livejournal.com


Okay, since I can't recommend you to take meds for this clearly misplaced anger at the angelic writer toward whom you clearly seeth with jealousy, clearly you need to just listen to some George Harrison spiritual pop and chill out!

Clearly.

I'm going to contact this other writer immediately to see if she'll buy me a nice little thatch hut in Burbank...

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


You sure you wouldn't like to harness my rage to do some ass-kicking on various acquaintances of yours whp deserve it? I've got so much, it's practically a natural resource.
lferion: Art of pink gillyflower on green background (Default)

From: [personal profile] lferion


Not exactly travel and also not exactly memoire, but I think you would find this book interesting:

"Far Above the Plain: private profiles & admissable evidence from the first fourty years of Murree Christian School, Pakistan" edited by Paul Asbury Seaman ISBN 0878082689

*calls local indie bookstore for copy of your book*

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From: [identity profile] paper-legends.livejournal.com


See, I'm not quite half way through it now, and I am enjoying it, but then, I do not feel the author is championing herself/the "character" (b/c I'm certain there's plenty of creative expansion going on there). I see all the same flaws you do (some hilarious, some that make me cringe) and the slow realization that it's all bullshit begins to dawn on the "character." But I don't know how it ends yet. I'm literally still in Rome, about to leave. It could be she ends up totally swallowing the generalizations and paradigms. So far, I thought the book was leading up to the life lesson that you already have everything you need to heal waiting inside you (as in, you could have gone home at any time, Dorothy, but if I just TOLD you to click your heels three times, you would never have believed me.) If it ends up that she's saying you have to go to India to be enlightened and real food and sex can only happen in Rome, fuck that.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I'm actually not sure what her final point was, if any; it got swallowed up in "Wheee! Fairy-tale ending with handsome Brazilian prince!"

I definitely liked the Rome section the best.

From: [identity profile] wild-patience.livejournal.com


I read your book recently and really enjoyed it.

I was wondering if anyone ever identified the "Maria and Alexander" that the nuns told you about when you were in the school there. It wasn't just a generic story. The girl was St. Maria Goretti, patron saint of young girls and chastity, for obvious reasons. Yes, when she was 12 or 13, she fought off this older teen, Alexander, who wanted to have sex with her. She forgave him on her deathbed and appeared to him after her death and he repented and there was a big canonization ceremony for her (after the official 3 miracles) which her mother attended. (One would hope that the mother would have preferred a living non-virgin daughter to a dead virginal saint, but who knows?)

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Yes! I found that out after the book was written, I think.

Though I have to say, "not wanting to be raped" is not exactly how I define "chastity!"

From: [identity profile] wijsgeer.livejournal.com


And it just happens to be India that has an extremely high rate of suicides. Many people way to poor and struggling in a brutal world, with expectations they can't fulfil and no other way out (either prescription drugs or therapy) but suicide. Old and noble traditions of yoga and spiritual wisdom not withstanding.

* Out of every three cases of suicide reported every 15 minutes in India, one is committed by a youth in the age group of 15 to 29.
*In the Union Territory of Pondicherry, every month at least 15 youths between the ages of 15 and 25 commit suicide.
*In 2002, there were 10,982 suicides in Tamil Nadu, 11,300 in Kerala, 10,934 in Karnataka, and 9,433 in Andhra Pradesh.
*In 2003, the largest number of farmers -- around 175 -- committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh.
*Kerala, the country's first fully literate state, has the highest number of suicides. Some 32 people commit suicide in Kerala every day.
(http://www.rediff.com/news/2004/apr/15spec.htm)
oyceter: teruterubouzu default icon (Default)

From: [personal profile] oyceter


Bwahahahahahaha! Your review = made of win!

From: [identity profile] bebemochi.livejournal.com


I came here via [livejournal.com profile] wintersweet, hope you don't mind!
For one, the whole time I was like, "Why do you get to go on this amazing trip? What the hell are you bringing to the table that means someone will pay for you to go?" I was already indignant early on. I got distracted by the Italy section, because I've been there and it's so intoxicating. But from India on, it just reeked of white privilege. Which, I won't lie, has to reek pretty stinky because I personally am so white and so privileged.
Essentially, all I got from it was metaphors. Good metaphors, but still! If they'd axed all the metaphors in that book, it'd be six pages long. For serious.

From: [identity profile] marzipan-pig.livejournal.com


I love negative reviews :)

I'm not against eating, praying, and loving, but I'm more of a 'finding them all right here' type.

From: [identity profile] lizzybee999.livejournal.com


Will definitely buy YOURS...thanks for the warning!
I'm sure I'd hate it -- and I already know from your blog that I adore YOUR writing. My goodness, I do hate 'Lady Bountiful Visits the Peasants' type people...

From: [identity profile] madam-silvertip.livejournal.com


Interestingly enough most of the publicity material, including the positive reviews, seems to focus on the first third. It was a long time before I knew India was even involved.

From: [identity profile] lizw.livejournal.com


Hi! I'm here via [livejournal.com profile] madam_silvertip, who linked to this review, because I'd seen Gilbert's book on Amazon and was wondering whether to get it. I was glad to see the race issues addressed in the review. I'm going to friend you, but I've seen your comments about friending in your userinfo and won't be offended if you don't reciprocate :-)
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From: [identity profile] alanahikarichan.livejournal.com


I'm here via...

Actually, I'm not quite sure. I think it might have been a discussion I was reading about Harry Potter that derailed into "books we hate" that derailed into "books about India that we hate" and evolved into "here are reviews of a book about India that is bad and should feel bad," but I've lost where the thread was.

On the other hand, your book sounds fantastic, and I have asked my mother to scour the bookstore she manages for it. :3

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Ha ha ha! What are some of your other nominees? I also loathed Holy Cow.

If you're not wedded to your Mom's bookstore, I'm selling autographed copies for half the cover price. ;)

http://rachelmanija.livejournal.com/756553.html

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From: (Anonymous) - Date: 2009-09-27 01:24 am (UTC) - Expand

From: [identity profile] naomikritzer.livejournal.com


I am now reading through your "insufferable memoir" review collection.

Oddly, when I tell people about your book, they always say, "Have you read The Glass Castle?" Which I haven't, actually, so I have no idea how it is. Have you read it? (I suppose if it's tagged "insufferable" I'll find out soon.)

I read a lot of memoirs (usually themed in some way, like occupational memoirs, where people tell you about their job, or infiltration memoirs, where they go join some group and then tell you all about it, or whatever) and smugness is one thing I absolutely can't STAND in a memoir. The very title of Eat Pray Love radiates smugness, so I have not even been remotely tempted to pick it up.
.

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