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.


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]

I started Video Night in Kathmandu but couldn't finish it. It just seemed to have been made from a "Random Things Happened to Me in Exotic Locations Where I Also Observed Interesting Juxtapositions, So I'm Cool!" generator. Does it get better? I wanted to like it...Maybe I was in a bad mood when I tried it, and I should try it again (and perhaps keeping in mind that a lot has happened since he wrote 20 years ago and when I went to those places).

I'm actually looking for additional modern travel writing based in Japan. Hokkaido Highway Blues was pretty entertaining, albeit occasionally cliched (and with a really abrupt ending). Untangling My Chopsticks was OK, too. Japan Ai (by [ profile] aimeekitty) is great fun; aimed more at people who've never been to Japan, but the drawings are totally charming. I've read some really OLD stuff about a Victorian woman poking around Japan, which is fascinating in its own way, but I'm looking for newer stuff that doesn't capitalize on the "Gee! Japan is sooo weird and random!" factor and isn't boring for people who've already been there.

From: [identity profile]

I recommend revisiting it, yes, but I don't have your travel experience. I've never been to Asia, so possibly it's aimed more for people with my POV than yours.

I've read dozens of books about Japan, but most of them tend toward the "those wacky Japanese!" perspective in ways that grate on both of us. I've actually gotten the perspective I most craved not from travel writing, but from Banana Yoshimoto's novels.

From: [identity profile]

Iyer's collections typically have some excellent essays and some meh ones. You might try Falling Off The Map, which has a gorgeously written essay on Iceland.

I am also looking for good travel writing about Japan!

Donald Richie is not quite modern and sometimes has squicky sexist attitudes, but his prose and sense of place are wonderful.

Banana Yoshimoto, whom you've probably read, writes fiction not travel but with a great sense of place and atmosphere. I recommend Kitchen and Lizard.

The teeny JTB illustrated book series are delightful and informative, though more guide book than literature. Ditto for Lonely Planet's World Food: Japan.

From: [identity profile]

Did you read Alex Kerr's Lost Japan? I read about half of it and liked the bits I read.

And did I ever give that Japan food memoir to you? I can't remember if I took it to Japan or didn't have room to pack it.

From: [identity profile]

Was it Untangling My Chopsticks? I thought it was enjoyable but a bit unmemorable.

I liked Lost Japan-- though I too only read about half!

From: [identity profile]

Yeah, that one. That was about my experience as well. :D

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