This book is not the sort of travel book that draws me in, but I ended up starting to read it anyway while unpacking our library (a lengthy, back-wrenching task at our house). It is by Elizabeth Gilbert, and in case one can’t read the stuff on the cover telling one that they made it into a movie, there’s a picture of some actress on the cover. I know I’ve seen her but I don’t recognize her name. Erin Brocovic, maybe.
Eat, Pray, Love. Three things a lot of us do every day without high drama, though it’s a more promising title than Pee, Swear, Groan.
Not sure what makes me recoil from books whose titles sound like idylls. I am sure that Frances Mayes is a delightful lady. Even so, when I wrote a manuscript about travel in Ireland, my working title parodied that of Under the Tuscan Sun. It all sounds so effete, so fragile, so froufrou, so gritless. I am far too affected by names in this regard. I battle this weakness; in fact, I forced myself to read Mayes’ book simply out of respect for what I was going to parody. And it was about like I thought it was: another book about fixing up old Mediterranean properties and cooking food in them. Not a thing in the world against an author who seems like a very nice lady that can probably spend an hour preparing an artichoke in just this special way she learned from an old grocer named Beppe so that it tastes like ambrosia delivered by angels and served by cherubs, but if I’m going to read about idyllic Tuscany, my kind of travel book is Dario Castagno’s Too Much Tuscan Sun, a Sienese tour guide writing about how ridiculous some of his clients are. The highlight of the dude’s life is when his social fraternity wins an annual horse race for the first time in decades. (Imagine: “Hi, my name is Joe, and I am a Ravens fan whose team won the Super Bowl last year.”) He actually puts that in the blurb; how much class does that require? A true character, and if you think about it, a much sharper cultural portrait of his region than you imagined you might get.
So I’m not much impressed by ‘now a motion picture!’ or an idyllic title everyone’s heard of, much less a picture of a Serbian actress. Most of my travel library, most of you haven’t heard of. Imagine someone who has combed used bookstores for ten years, and in each one, has bought only the single most unique, interesting travel biography. Paul Theroux? I read a couple and liked them well enough, but he’s nowhere near as fun as Tim Cahill. Bruce Chatwin? Couldn’t tell you. I read one and nothing about it stands out in my memory, which is not true of the incredibly ballsy and laconic Tim Severin. Redmond O’Hanlon? Another one whose titles turn me off, this time for pretension. ‘No Mercy.’ ‘In Trouble Again.’ Not only do those tell me nothing, I can’t help thinking the author considers himself a vast badass. Maybe he does. Maybe he is. If so, I won’t need the title to tell me that. A real travel badass is Tony Horwitz throwing up in a bucket on a tall ship, or the Australian woman who went on a camel trip and just stopped wearing clothes at times. She has the guts to describe how she just let her menstrual blood seep down her bare thighs, out in the middle of nowhere. I forget her name, but I’m not done with my coffee and I can’t remember it offhand; I’m hiding out here from the twelfth annual 9/11 garment-rending, sort of hunkered down for the day. A search for “Australian camel travel woman” should fetch her.
At least I don’t judge the book by a cover. If Mayes had pictured a stack of hockey pucks on her cover, or a shot of herself in a bikini, it wouldn’t have changed a thing for me. Titles affect me abnormally.
Of course, you can’t review a book based on reading a quarter of it, nor merely its title, and you can’t hold against it that it was popular enough to be a movie. I fought off all my biases and started reading, because I needed something to read, and this was something I hadn’t read. So far, it’s basically: woman who serially gives too much until she can give no more, then gets all depressed about it and finally decides to spend a year doing something good and selfish for once as therapy. It’s a much better Lifetime plot than most of what they show, that I’ll grant you, because to me Lifetime movies are a steady stream of shows about women being hurt, abused, scared, cheated and killed. I’m not sure how that helps anyone to watch, but evidently those are very popular themes with some women, or there wouldn’t be a movie channel devoted to them. Then again, I’m not sure how an annual self-laceration helps a whole country, but evidently once again I’m in the minority there as well.
I’m sure the events in the book are very interesting and formative to the author, and probably to people who have been in similar situations and wished they could just hare off somewhere else for a year. To me, maybe not so much. It does beat hell out of the rest of what I’m reading around the net this morning.