I've noticed New York Times Bestsellers fall into one of two categories: Literary art or fodder shoveled toward the enormous appetite for whatever is the current fad. Often the latter is comprised of knock-offs of a bestseller whose theme/topic continues, ad naseum. An example of deserved NY Times best selling status is Khalid Hosseini's, The Kite Runner. This fictional tale accomplished what a great book is meant to do--it transforms the reader. I've rarely been so devastated, so enlightened, by a work of fiction. Hosseini's passion resulted in a tale that transported me into a culture I'd sadly (and smugly) disregarded entirely. It changed my perception permanently.
On the other end of the spectrum is the overwhelming hit, Twilight, the YA debut by author Stephanie Meyer. I will resist the urge to be snarky and dismantle the hysteria surrounding this title. Other (better) connoisseurs of good writing have already done this. Meyer had an intriguing premise, no doubt, but she broke some kind of record for usage of cliched adverbs and adjectives. I put this Harlequin romance for teens down about 3/4 of the way through.
On my recent vacation in Maui, I had the opportunity to read several books or parts of books (Reading in paradise--what could be better?) and discovered something about pairing horses and writing. Horse keeping lends itself to authenticity, an essential trait in good writing. Horse people tend to be down-to-earth sorts. Perhaps this is because we wrestle with the concept of "down-to-the-earth" more than most and this keeps us humble and honest. Helps us avoid taking ourselves too seriously. Allow me to compare two recently read memoirs--a favorite genre: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and Chosen Forever, by Susan Richards.
When it comes to reading I am an omnivore and enjoy buffet style nourishment. I'm not stuck on fiction, non-fiction, or any particular author. I love to be surprised by something new, different, and delicious. Trying a strange "dish" is good; you can't always tell by description or appearance what you'll like. This is how I became a fan of hummus and olive tapenade. Conversely, some things that look/sound yummy can give you a stomachache. This was the case for me with the wildly successful, Eat, Pray, Love. Firstly, let me say Elizabeth Gilbert is a fine writer. She has a good handle on clever technique and turn-a-phrase and uses a personal style of writing I like. There was a reason she was paid, in advance, for a book based on her experiences "finding herself" in Italy, India, and Indonesia. This one fact is at the root of the problem, for me. Payment in advance for a work of fiction is one thing, payment in advance for something meant to be inspirational, "spiritual," is quite another. Let's just say I could come up with something spiritual, too, if I was paid in advance to find it while traveling the world. Not a bad gig for a freelancer. Also flawed for me is Gilbert's premise. Feeling vaguely, yet deeply, dissatisfied with her marriage, the possibility of having children, and a dull suburban life she has a messy affair and, soon after, a messy divorce. I had a hard time dredging up empathy for this woman; a problem in memoir. Good memoir has, at its core, authenticity. While Gilbert's voice was engaging and often entertaining she lacked a certain honesty. Her new agey obsession with self wore thin and by the time she was kissing trees and divulging details about her sex life (with herself and a new lover who-obviously-helped her along her newly discovered spiritual path) I was ready for the Peptobismal. So why did Eat, Pray, Love hit the NY Times bestseller list? It feeds the wildly popular notion that anything goes in the elusive search for self-You're worth it Baby. Spiritually the book is also comfortably vague. Perfect. Look for the movie coming out with Julia Roberts. I'll probably watch it, along with a bag of cotton candy and the Pepto.
In contrast Susan Richards, Chosen Forever, is rich and satisfying. This sequel to her NY Times bestseller, Chosen By A Horse, continues a theme of redemption that began in Richards life with the unassuming love of a discarded Standardbred mare named Lay Me Down. Chosen By A Horse brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me that the experiences and individuals that touch us and change us the most are not the ones orchestrated and paid for in advance. They come as a surprise; involve our deepest emotions; even give us a broken heart. They don't always make sense at first sight. Do yourself a favor and read Chosen By A Horse. The sequel, Chosen Forever, is the story that unfolds in the authors life after the surprise success of her literary labor of love. I was ready to be disappointed but enjoyed it nearly as much as the first book.
Here's to finding oneself--on the back of a horse.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Monday, August 10, 2009
I am home. Mostly sobered up from a lovely Maui "buzz" and back to the land of regular routine (sniff, sniff). I did miss my horses terribly and by the second week an island equine sighting made me homesick. In celebration of my time in Paradise, I must digress somewhat and share something I discovered while learning to body surf.
It was evident early in my life that I would not be an athlete. The fact that I didn't walk until two years of age said something about future athletic ability. My mother says I knew how to walk long before I actually began doing so. Apparently I was content to watch, consider the options, and firmly hold onto the security of the furniture longer then most children. This tendency to spectate far too long seems stamped into my DNA. I hadn't improved much by elementary and high school. With the major exception of horseback riding, I didn't participate in sports. I remember longing to be a gymnast, a dancer, a runner. It didn't help that I was tall and lean. For some reason people assumed this meant I was also coordinated and athletic. I wish I had a dollar for every time I got this observation: "You're tall; you must play basketball/volleyball." Um, not so much. Except on my horse, I felt like an awkward klutz for most of my adolescent years. I avoided anything that would put my lack of coordination on display and made an art form out of observation and spectatorship.
Introverts--particularly writers--can be a rather boring lot. We're content taking in the experiences of others, turning them over in our minds incessantly and looking for truth, drama, human interest. This is all fine and good for writing but its a poor substitute for experiencing life and new things for oneself--getting sweaty/dirty/exhausted.
On our first full day in Maui we ventured to the beach. My hot-blooded, suck-the-marrow from life Portuguese husband insisted we all go body surfing. Um, excuse me; I do not body surf. I immediately decided this was yet another activity to sit out and observe. No doubt I wouldn't be able to do it anyway, plus getting all sandy.....
After watching everybody else dive bomb the surf and putting my toes into that amazing turquoise, 78 degree water I began to change my mind. I felt disgusted. I'm in Maui, for God's sake. I did not come to Paradise to sit and watch. For an hour or more I swallowed salt water, got sand up my suit, AND caught a couple gnarly waves--Cha! On the walk back to the condo I found a toasty warm hill of sand, fine as sugar, and sunk my feet in up to the ankles (I wanted to transport that beautiful heap of sand back to the Pacific Northwest for future rainy days when my very soul needs a warm-up). Salty, sandy, and exhausted I was reminded that throwing oneself into sports and other physical activities fully engages the five senses. I don't have to be a stellar athlete to reap the benefits of sports. As I think of my horses, I realize that one reason I love them so much is they pull me out of my tendency to spectate and give me a means to experience life more fully.
Besides body surfing, I also learned to snorkel while on vacation. On Maui, the Pacific Ocean is a thing of intoxicating beauty and I found myself drawn to it like never before. For fun, here are a few things I did not know about Maui and one vision I will remember always:
1. The ocean really is that color; the island really is that beautiful.
2. Even chickens love paradise. Chickens are everywhere on Maui. My favorite chicken sighting was outside the Maui Dive Shop in a busy strip mall, downtown Kihei. Two chickens perched atop somebodies snazzy SUV (oops).
3. Hawaiians consider Spam a desirable food choice. This was proven by a significant portion of aisle dedicated to Spam products in Costco. Did you know Spam also makes a hotdog? Double "Eeewwwwwww!"
4. It truly is the Land of Aloha. My favorite aloha sighting was hearing an older Hawaiian grocery store clerk address a white male tourist as, "My brother."
5. Maui is a great place to ogle walking art--tattoos. If you have a slight fetish for them as I do, you'll never lack for interest while people watching. I was quite tempted to get another one myself but decided instead to get a temporary henna. However, when I have my midlife crisis I'll return to Maui and get a tatt. Or three. Maybe a belly button ring, too. Never hurts to plan ahead for these things.
Driving back from Lahaina one evening I suddenly caught sight of the full moon through the sun roof. The road south there hugs the shoreline, winding a slow descent into Kihei and "condo country." But at that moment, all one could see was the inky Pacific, stretching to a midnight sky and disappearing into infinity. The silver light of the moon gilded the surface of the water into rippling pools of liquid platinum. I felt small and insignificant. At the same time I had a sense of being deeply loved by the Creator who spread out His hands and worked together such beauty."...Darkness was on the face of the deep and the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters."