Monday, August 24, 2009


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.


Heidiwriter said...

Great post! I want to read Chosen by a Horse--sounds wonderful!

Catherine said...

Hey Heidi, thanks for stopping by. Do read the book; I bet you'll like it. As a writer, you'll be very interested in the sequel, Chosen Forever, as well. Richards shares in depth about her publishing journey. Fascinating and encouraging.