- Any John Keegan fans out there? Here’s a review of his latest book Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda from the New Zealand Herald. I’m looking forward to reading this one.
- The Brits have something called the WHSmith Book Award, which is basically a “people’s choice” award for books. If you are so inclined, you can vote now. Some interesting nominations include Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the adult fiction category, former professional wrestler/current professional novelist Mick Foley‘s Tietam Brown in the debut novel category, and LA Weekly contributor Geoff Dyer‘s book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It in the travel category. I wonder how something like this would go over in the States.
Pitting a novel entitled Am I a Redundant Human Being? against Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love may initially seem like an imbalanced match. Eat, Pray, Love is more than double its length, a best-seller turned blockbuster movie, an inspirational book devoted to the pursuit of sensuality, spirituality, personal independence, and love. Mela Hartwig’s Am I a Redundant Human Being? is a conspicuous underdog, a slight volume in translation written by the Austrian actress turned novelist Mela Hartwig who befriended Virginia Woolf in Woolf’s final years. Gilbert’s book is a travel memoir that recounts a year-long pilgrimage in search of personal enlightenment that Gilbert the writer planned to chronicle well before booking her flights, while Hartwig’s is a bildungsroman, centered on the ineffectual Aloisia Schmidt who aspires to significance as she bemoans the dullness of the existence she was born into. The titles alone reveal the divergent natures of the two books, and demand that you answer, as a reader, are you drawn to pleasance or neurotic self-doubt?
The Library of Congress classifies Am I a Redundant Human Being? primarily as a book about “self-realization in women,” which is the topic of Gilbert’s book, too: the process of growing into the person you dream of becoming (or, in Schmidt’s case, of failing to do so). Gilbert’s path to self-actualization is fairly clear-cut: first stop Italy, where she learns Italian and binges on pasta and pizza merely because she wants to, next an ashram in India in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and a final stop in Bali for balance, where inevitably, it’s no secret, she falls in love. As Gilbert states towards the end of her journey: “I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life that I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life, liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other than myself.” However inspiring or cloying or annoying you find Gilbert’s self-satisfaction by book’s end, this becoming one’s ideal is exactly what Hartwig’s Aloisia Schmidt yearns to do, so desperately in fact that she’s willing to destroy her life in this pursuit.
Aloisia Schmidt is wonderfully insufferable. She recounts the sad events of her insignificant life in tireless detail. She is neither beautiful nor ugly, intelligent nor stupid, good student nor bad: the sum of her life is one large zero, or at least that’s what she would lead you, dear reader, to believe. However, Schmidt has penetrating insight into her own inadequacies and shortcomings, as well as the strength to willfully unravel her unexceptional life, as her first boyfriend, Emil K., accuses: “it’s hubris, Luise, to think so little of yourself… You’re acting as if you’ve been singled out. As if it’s your destiny to feel this way.” She rejects suitors with good intentions in favor of caustic affairs, erodes the faith of others, especially lovers, with her own self-doubt, and alienates anyone who believes in her – true to Groucho Marx’s adage, she wouldn’t care to join any club that would have her as a member.
Gilbert, on the other hand, identifies as being “social and bubbly and smiling all the time,” and makes friends wherever she goes. Her tone conveys personal warmth. She speaks plainly, offering intimate details and asides as if confiding in a good friend. In India, Gilbert admits her lifelong desire “to be the quiet girl,” but then counters this quickly with: “Probably precisely because I’m not.” She is the well-intentioned socialite, and never, however much she halfheartedly wishes, the despondent wallflower. However, Gilbert’s glibness and sometimes pussyfooting make one wonder about her depth. We need not forget that Gilbert is on a professional mission. Following her divorce and failed love affair, the self-proclaimed “administrator of my own rescue” had the wherewithal to pitch her book, pack her bags, and journey solo around the world for a year, under the pretense of finding herself.
Gilbert is closer in nature to one of Schmidt’s prep school classmates who are better dressed, better prepared, just more advantaged in general, something that Schmidt later identifies as “two-faced arrogance that comes with money and social position – things I completely lacked, and still lack.” When she has moved on to office life, Schmidt becomes “conscious of my pathetic tendency to be impressed by anyone the least bit self-assured.” Lacking confidence distinguishes Schmidt from the women she both envies and admires, and this distinguishes her from Gilbert, too.
Schmidt later befriends an actress (uncannily) named Elizabeth, who she wants so much to be that she imitates her, and this emulation becomes Schmidt’s one inspired role. After Elizabeth’s suicide, Schmidt attempts to inhabit her character, wanting “to make her fate my own, to experience it as a dream and desire.” Aloisia Schmidt is like Eve Harrington, the cunning understudy in All About Eve, though it’s not Elizabeth’s fame and prominence she covets, it’s her entire existence. Where Gilbert grows into her ideal self in the end, Schmidt’s ideal self is someone else entirely.
Of the two books, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is the one Aloisia Schmidt would prefer to read. Of her reading habits, Schmidt says, “I read in order to forget myself, to slip from one life into another, to identify myself with my newest heroine… When I read, I lived on credit; I literally borrowed from the author what I myself so painfully lacked – namely, fantasies. I dreamed, you could say, at the author’s expense. But wasn’t it his job to dream for me?” Gilbert speaks to fantasies, specifically the twenty-first century American variety of jet-set enlightenment by way of paradisiacal settings, and reassurance that broken hearts mend to love again. The fantasy is so persuasive that her book has singlehandedly augmented spiritual tourism in Bali.
Eat, Pray, Love owes no small part of its success to the fantasy it sells to multitudes of readers who, à la Aloisia Schmidt, question the significance of their lives, who find, if not hope, then escape from their thwarted aspirations and dreams. Schmidt would prefer to lead Elizabeth Gilbert’s life, and honestly, if I had to chose between their lives, I would, too. But as a reader, I find that Schmidt’s hand in her own downfall and her relentless refusal to settle for redundancy make her a more interesting if also more complicated character.
Bonus Link: Zen and the Art of Image Maintenance
The Rake is underwhelmed by a Lily Tuck reading, but nonetheless manages to put together a characteristically amusing recap of the event. Now that’s dedication.Ed visits used bookstore run by the cranky and paranoid and lives to tell the tale.CAAF on good vs. bad protagonists.McSweeney’s fans: I couldn’t help but notice that Amazon is shilling issue #14 for the low, low price of 6 bucks. Get ’em while they’re hot.
Between July 1 and November 5th, I don’t think I read anything longer than a three-page spread on Politico or anything more literary than a New Yorker cartoon. Political campaigns are experiments in all sorts of deprivations. The days are long and narrow, filled with fast food containers and the sounds of vibrating Blackberries. I started on the Obama campaign back in January in South Carolina. Many of my colleagues on the general election campaign in Pennsylvania had been at this for almost two years, a stunning feat of endurance that stretched from hours spent knocking doors after dark in frozen New Hampshire, straight through to the week of all-nighters that preceded Election Day.Among the things I lost to an around-the-clock schedule, books were not the most precious. On any given day I missed talking with my friends, or going for a run, more. But if books were not the things I missed most, their absence was in one way the most profound. While the hurly-burly of the campaign never caused me to question the importance of calling my dad or cooking a meal, it did cast doubt over the value of reading.In this past Sunday’s Times Book Review Jonathan Lethem wrote of the author Roberto Bolano, that he “never tires of noting how a passion for literature walks a razor’s edge between catastrophic irrelevance and sublime calling.” The frantic activity of a campaign questions the relevance of a reading life. It was energizing these past few months to feel myself so squarely in the flow of history, and coming down the homestretch in October, it would have felt like I was stepping out of the current to have spent an afternoon reading. But just as one can only subsist on almonds and M&Ms for so long (I made it a week), after awhile I found I needed books as much as I needed vegetables. Literature is sublime when it invigorates awareness of the world around us, and we rely on the store of that awareness in times, like campaigns, when there is not a lot of opportunity to assess where we are or to question where we’re going. Now that it’s over and I’m reading again, I find that stories are not so much a refuge or a pause as they are a way for me to put my feet on the ground again.
With one round done in TMN’s Tournament of Books, things are looking good for The Millions bracket which, along with Condalmo, was the only one that had Brady Udall picking Chimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun over Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. How did I decide to pick it? It was a favorite of Dan Wickett’s and I trust that guy’s taste.Also, if you’ve checked out the Book Bloggers’ Office Pool page, you may have noticed that the reader that I’m playing for, who was randomly selected by TMN, shares a last name with me. He is, in fact, my dad. So this means one of two things. Either it’s quite a coincidence, or my bracket was only selected by family members who decided to support me out of pity. Regardless, if my bracket wins and my dad gets all those books that should have me covered for quite a few Fathers Days and birthdays.
Last night Derek and I went to a party at a squat on Western in a no-man’s-land area of LA. Apparently, the kids who were squatting there are about to be kicked out, so this was one last bash. We went because the Sharp Ease were playing. Several other bands were playing as well, and throughout the show people were sporadically destroying the place, a set of abandoned apartments above a non-descript furniture store. The place was already very trashed from months of parties. The doors to many of the rooms had been ripped off the hinges and the graffiti-covered walls were pockmarked with holes and dents. The Sharp Ease played their usual, drunken, high-energy set, and the crowd got pretty rowdy. By the time they finished singing, people were tearing down the walls and launching things – cans of paint, small appliances, cinder blocks – through the windows and leaving a litter of glass and debris all over Western Ave. Derek and I, sensing that it would get worse before it got better, drunkenly headed back to our homes.
When: Early afternoon Monday 9/15/03Where: A park bench in Larchmont (A tony neighborhood in L.A.)Who: Twenty-something manWhat: Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks.Description: “Once it was easy to distinguish the staid Bourgeois from the radical Bohemians. This field study of America’s latest elite–a hybrid Brooks calls the Bobos–covers everything from cultural artifacts to Bobo attitudes towards sex, morality, work, and leisure.”Anyone else like to go bookspotting?
Now, this sounds like a good idea: Marvel Comics announced today that is has put more than 2,500 comic books online with more to come. The idea is that with a subscription, readers can get unlimited access to the online comic vault. Clearly Marvel’s still working out the bugs – I tried to view some of the “free samples” but got a bunch of errors – but the move makes a lot of sense. Traditional publishers are experimenting with online readers, but the widgets are designed to make it easy to view snippets of books rather than whole books. With comics, much more easily consumed on a computer screen, these efforts seem more viable, as a trove of comics a click away will likely tempt many fans.
Strolling around the bookstore the other day, a book with a startling cover and a wacky title caught my eye. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is a humorous travelogue about one of South America’s more obscure countries, Paraguay. Pig is the first book by John Gimlett who has written articles for a number of travel magazines over the years. This excerpt is definitely worth a peek.