Readersforum's Blog

November 21, 2011

No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis?

Zoe Williams recommends reading serious non-fiction rather than novels. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

When our daily news is apocalyptic, it’s irresponsible to read made-up stories. It’s time to start reading the serious stuff instead.

By Zoe Williams

It’s something that they say a lot in publishing, apparently, that once you turn 40, you start reading biographies. I do remember in my 20s, someone nearing 40 saying, “When a novel says, ‘So-and-so walked into the room,’ I have this voice in my head shouting ‘So? They’re not real! The room isn’t real!'” I thought, what an incredibly weird, sad, unexpected, unattractive side of ageing, like getting cellulite on your nose. Sure enough, though, I’ve found my appetite for fiction has fallen off a cliff. It’s possible that this is just part of my inexorable crawl toward death. But there’s a topnote of guilt, which reminds me of that wartime poster: “To dress extravagantly in wartime is worse than bad form. It is unpatriotic.” When the news is so apocalyptic, and there is so much to understand, and a lot of it is quite basic (what’s the point of low interest rates again? How do you devalue a currency? Why are there so many earthquakes? Tell me one more time about tectonic plates; I promise this time I’ll listen … ), it feels more than frivolous to read about made-up people. It feels unpatriotic. Or, to put it another way, it is like watching the telly when you have homework.

There is a surge in popular economics books – if you look at the Penguin catalogue for next year, every second one is about money, how it works, how it doesn’t work and how soon it will end.

There is a surge of books about the changing world order: India Rising, from Faber, as of course it is, but also Keeping Up With the Germans. Its author, Philip Oltermann, finished it before the crisis, and before Angela Merkel fetched up at the centre of the eurozone pantomime. He describes the eerie experience of hearing economic commentators pose exactly his question, as a matter of urgency: how on earth can everybody keep up with the Germans? The book is not straightforward economics. “It’s a book about why English and German people sometimes get on and sometimes don’t. It’s a book that argues that, in order to understand the phenomenal success of the German economy over the past 50 years, we need to look beyond the cliche of robotic, machine-like ‘efficiency’ and understand why Germans are ultimately sentimental romantics, even when it comes to cars.”

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July 17, 2011

The Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award 2010/2011 Shortlist

The 2010/2011 Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award shortlist has been announced.

The award, which is accompanied by a cheque for R10 000, recognises the home-grown title that SA booksellers large and small took the most pleasure – and profit – in reading and selling last year.

Books LIVE is delighted to see three of our members on the list: Alex Smith, Cynthia Jele and Lauren Beukes are joined by Alexander Parker, Zapiro, Derryn Campbell and Evita Bezuidenhout. Jele and Beukes, of course, have already had, oh, a smidgen of success with their 2010 novels this year (cf the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, M Net Film Award and a little something-something called the Arthur C Clarke Award).

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50 People Who Stuffed Up South AfricaAwesome South AfricaEvita's Kossie SikelelaFour Drunk BeautiesHappiness is a Four-Letter WordZoo City (SA edition)

September 8, 2010

Eat Pray Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

Early on in “Eat, Pray, Love,” her travelogue of spiritual seeking, the novelist and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert gives a characteristically frank rundown of her traveling skills: tall and blond, she doesn’t blend well physically in most places; she’s lazy about research and prone to digestive woes. “But my one mighty travel talent is that I can make friends with anybody,” she writes. “I can make friends with the dead. . . . If there isn’t anyone else around to talk to, I could probably make friends with a four-foot-tall pile of Sheetrock.”

This is easy to believe. If a more likable writer than Gilbert is currently in print, I haven’t found him or her. And I don’t mean this as consolation prize, along the lines of: but she’s really, really nice. I mean that Gilbert’s prose is fueled by a mix of intelligence, wit and colloquial exuberance that is close to irresistible, and makes the reader only too glad to join the posse of friends and devotees who have the pleasure of listening in. Her previous work of nonfiction, “The Last American Man” (she’s also the author of a fine story collection and a novel), was a portrait of a modern-day wilderness expert that became an evocative meditation on the American frontier, and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002.

Here, Gilbert’s subject is herself. Reeling from a contentious divorce, a volatile rebound romance and a bout of depression, she decided at 34 to spend a year traveling in Italy, India and Indonesia. “I wanted to explore one aspect of myself set against the backdrop of each country, in a place that has traditionally done that one thing very well,” she writes. “I wanted to explore the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two.” Her trip was financed by an advance on the book she already planned to write, and “Eat, Pray, Love” is the mixed result.

At its best, the book provides an occasion for Gilbert to unleash her fresh, oddball sensibility on an international stage. She describes Messina, Italy, as “a scary and suspicious Sicilian port town that seems to howl from behind barricaded doors, ‘It’s not my fault that I’m ugly! I’ve been earthquaked and carpet-bombed and raped by the Mafia, too!’ ” Later, she sees a Balinese mother “balancing on her head a three-tiered basket filled with fruit and flowers and a roasted duck — a headgear so magnificent and impressive that Carmen Miranda would have bowed down in humility before it.” Gilbert also takes pleasure in poking fun at herself. At an Indian ashram, she winningly narrates the play of her thoughts while she tries to meditate: “I was wondering where I should live once this year of traveling has ended. . . . If I lived somewhere cheaper than New York, maybe I could afford an extra bedroom and then I could have a special meditation room! That’d be nice. I could paint it gold. Or maybe a rich blue. No, gold. No, blue. . . . Finally noticing this train of thought, I was aghast. I thought: . . . How about this, you spastic fool — how about you try to meditate right here, right now, right where you actually are?”

“Eat, Pray, Love” is built on the notion of a woman trying to heal herself from a severe emotional and spiritual crisis; Gilbert suggests more than once that she was at risk for suicide. But where she movingly rendered up the tortured inner life of Eustace Conway, the gigantically flawed subject of “The Last American Man,” Gilbert has a harder time when it comes to Gilbert. Often she short shrifts her own emotional state for the sake of keeping the reader entertained: “They come upon me all silent and menacing like Pinkerton detectives,” she writes of feeling depressed and lonely in Italy, “and they flank me — Depression on my left, Loneliness on my right. They don’t need to show me their badges. I know these guys very well. We’ve been playing a cat-and-mouse game for years now. . . . Then Loneliness starts interrogating me. . . . He asks why I can’t get my act together, and why I’m not at home living in a nice house and raising nice children like any respectable woman my age should be.”

But wait a second — Gilbert is a New York journalist who has spent the prior several years traveling the world on assignment. In her chosen milieu, it would be unusual if she were married and raising kids in a house at age 34 — by her own account, she left her husband precisely to avoid those things. I’m willing to believe that Gilbert despaired over having failed at a more conventional life even as she sought out its opposite — complications like these are what make us human. But she doesn’t tell that story here, or even acknowledge the paradox. As a result, her crisis remains a shadowy thing, a mere platform for the actions she takes to alleviate it.

What comes through much more strongly is her charisma. On a trip to Indonesia well before her year of travel, she visited a Balinese medicine man who read her palm and proclaimed: “You have more good luck than anyone I’ve ever met. You will live a long time, have many friends, many experiences. . . . You only have one problem in your life. You worry too much.” He then invited her to spend several months in Bali as his protégé. At another point, Gilbert petitions God to move her husband to sign their divorce agreement and gets a nearly instant result; later she devotes a love hymn to her nephew, whose sleep problems, she learns the next week, have abruptly ceased. Putting aside questions of credibility, the problem with these testaments to Gilbert’s good luck and personal power is that they undercut any sense of urgency about her future. “Eat, Pray, Love” suffers from a case of low stakes; one reads for the small vicissitudes of Gilbert’s journey — her struggle to accept the end of her failed rebound relationship; her ultimately successful efforts to meditate; her campaign to help a Balinese woman and her daughter buy a home — never really doubting that things will come right. But even Gilbert’s sassy prose is flattened by the task of describing her approach to the divine, and the midsection of the book, at the ashram, drags.

By the time she reaches Indonesia, Gilbert herself admits that the stated purpose of the visit has already been accomplished. “The task in Indonesia was to search for balance,” she writes, “but . . . the balance has somehow naturally come into place.” There would seem to be only one thing missing — romance — and she soon finds that with a Brazilian man 18 years her senior who calls her “darling” and says things like, “You can decide to feel how you want to, but I love you and I will always love you.” Gilbert acknowledges the “almost ludicrously fairy-tale ending to this story,” but reminds us, “I was not rescued by a prince; I was the administrator of my own rescue.”

Rescue from what? The reader has never been sure. Lacking a ballast of gravitas or grit, the book lists into the realm of magical thinking: nothing Gilbert touches seems to turn out wrong; not a single wish goes unfulfilled. What’s missing are the textures and confusion and unfinished business of real life, as if Gilbert were pushing these out of sight so as not to come off as dull or equivocal or downbeat. When, after too much lovemaking, she is stricken with a urinary tract infection, she forgoes antibiotics and allows her friend, a Balinese healer, to treat the infection with noxious herbs. “I suffered it down,” Gilbert writes. “Well, we all know how the story ends. In less than two hours I was fine, totally healed.” The same could be said about “Eat, Pray, Love”: we know how the story ends pretty much from the beginning. And while I wouldn’t begrudge this massively talented writer a single iota of joy or peace, I found myself more interested, finally, in the awkward, unresolved stuff she must have chosen to leave out.

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