I have such mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, the author is a self-indulgent and over-privileged whiner. On the other hand, there are parts...moreI have such mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, the author is a self-indulgent and over-privileged whiner. On the other hand, there are parts and passages here that are genuinely well-written and thought-provoking.
Basic premise: a 30-something privileged white New York woman has a crisis of faith, realizes she doesn't love her husband and does not want children with him, goes through an awful messy divorce, then decides to go on a year-long trip around the world (to Italy, India, and Indonesia) to find her own peace of mind.
First of all, she gets paid for this book before she even leaves New York. She is an accomplished magazine writer, and has three other books out, blah blah blah. I bet anyone, anyone at all, can "find enlightenment" with a book advance check padding their bank account.
Second, there's a choice that every woman has to make, according to Elizabeth Gilbert - you can have kids and a husband and be an upstanding citizen, of you can go off on your own and be a free-wheeling and free-thinking progressive woman. Because obviously, being an independent woman AND a mother at the same time is not an option. This alone made me want to punch the writer in the face. She even calls herself a post-feminist at one point in the book. News flash: you can't be post-anything if you don't have the basic concepts down. And by "basic concepts" I mean things like, "you don't need a man to make you happy," which is something that Gilbert still hasn't really internalized, even after a year of all this soul-searching.
Third, the privilege issue. She falls into the same trap that many other Western travelers in the Third World fall into: she looks at the abject poverty around her and decides that these people must make a choice to live this way. In a way, it's easier to adopt this line of thinking, because seeing the situation for what it really is would mean admitting that yes, people all over the world REALLY ARE THAT POOR. But if you're writing a book about your travels through developing countries, you owe it to the places you visit to talk frankly about the poverty, not just brush it aside as just another element of local color and customs. But oh, I forgot, she already got paid, so she doesn't owe jack.
She's honest and open and at least makes an effort to acknowledge her faults. She does a lot of crying and whining, which gets annoying, but she is genuinely trying to work through her issues, and writes openly and honestly about her commendable efforts. I've read a lot of self-improvement-and-spiritual-growth-through-travel literature, and Elizabeth Gilbert's relative level of arrogance is pretty low, compared to some others.
And she's funny. She makes corny but well-placed jokes, sometimes at her own expense. And the writing flows well, the description vivid and engaging, even if the verb tenses are kind of in crisis.
From what I understand, the wild popularity of this book means that it's reaching a lot of women who never would have thought that traveling alone and embarking on other types of solitary spiritual or physical quests was an option for them. I haven't actually met any of these women, but if it's true, then, well, wonderful. All of my ranting here can easily be rendered obsolete by one housewife from Missouri who reads this book and as a result decides to leave her abusive husband and instead move to a new place and open her own cupcake shop.
But I'm not a housewife from Missouri. Instead, I am an independent woman who's done a great deal of traveling on her own, including driving big rigs around America and teaching English in China. And having done these things on my own, I would still kind of like to punch Elizabeth Gilbert in the face.(less)
My copy of this book is British, water-damaged and food-stained, its spine broken and its pages dog-eared. I bought it at a used book shop in the magi...moreMy copy of this book is British, water-damaged and food-stained, its spine broken and its pages dog-eared. I bought it at a used book shop in the magical, breathtaking Thai island of Koh Phangan, though it also has a stamp from a Bangkok store so I knew it had made its rounds, and brought it back to the States with me. I purposefully didn't read it for months and months -- not because I didn't want to, but because I was saving it for when I really needed it.
I finally read it in small, delicious bites during lunch breaks at a mind-numbingly boring office job in a drab industrial park, chain-smoking and drinking diet Coke in my car as my half-hour time slots flew too quickly by. I read it when I most desperately needed a reminder that somewhere out there, far from my drab workaday life, someone was cooking and eating something fabulous. Someone was having adventures, getting their clothes dirty, getting lost and finding their way back, and trying something that would forever change the way they looked at the world. Someone, somewhere, was eating green papaya salad or a freshly shucked oyster for the first time. And every day, this knowledge made me feel better about having to answer a gray phone in a gray office for four more hours.
I loved Kitchen Confidential, and I can see why it has a wider appeal than his travel writing, which can sometimes come across as the chaotic ramblings of a crazy man. But his crazy is my crazy. Having eaten questionable street food all over Asia and wandered down the side streets of Muslim neighborhoods in Jerusalem in search of hummus, I was regularly driven to tears reading Bourdain's accounts of similar experiences -- though obviously, he is much, much more hardcore than I could even dream of being. This book made me cry and laugh and miss being on the road something fierce, sometimes all on the same page.
Of course, not every chapter is brilliant. The pieces about Europe left little impression on me. The parts where he rants about the camera crew following him around get kind of old. But it's the Vietnam stories that are the soul of this collection. In these, each word explodes off the page, making my heart jump with wanderlust. It's the places that are hardest to reach that capture your heart the most. "The journey is part of the experience - an expression of the seriousness of one's intent," he writes towards the end of the book. "One doesn't take the A train to Mecca." Ain't that the truth?(less)
Travelogues and Steinbeck are two things I adore -- the love of travel writing being a permanent state of mind, and Steinbeck being a recent re-discov...moreTravelogues and Steinbeck are two things I adore -- the love of travel writing being a permanent state of mind, and Steinbeck being a recent re-discovery -- but even so, I loved this book even more than I thought I would. The 40-year-old observations about America, its regions and its growth patterns, are timeless, and the ruminations on traveling in general are characteristically brilliant. I will be re-reading this book again and again.(less)