Highly Recommended Reading: The Last American Man

I gave Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love a warm but restrained review.  At the end of that book, though, I saw an ad for her previous book, The Last American Man, her biography of modern mountain man Eustace Conway.  The blurb noted that Conway had been a survivalist since his teens, and had been living in the woods full-time since 1977, in addition to such stunts as walking the entire length of the Appalachians and riding a horse from coast to coast.  I got this book quickly, devoured it ravenously, and am delighted to say that my praise for this book of Gilbert’s will see no trace of the hesitations I gave her most recent and more popular effort.  The Last American Man is easily the best thing I’ve read so far this year.

One of the problems with Eat, Pray, Love is that it often reads like an unedited diary.  This friendly casualness is largely a strength, but it can become grating when someone dwells for so long on the neurotic nuances of their own head.  My only expectation upon opening The Last American Man was that Gilbert’s gift for prose might work more effectively if she were not at the center of the action, and I was greatly rewarded–her narration of anecdotes, her sequencing of events, and her general sense of balance and perspective throughout the book are nearly flawless.  This is a top-notch biography. 

Gilbert does perhaps spend a bit too much time reporting on Conway’s love life, but if so, it’s a small fault.  The women who have factored into Conway’s life make his story richer, and show us even more of the man himself.

And Conway is the hero of this book, in any sense of the word.  Gilbert worships him, and his plain but forceful life demands our respect and esteem–not to mention that it’s seriously entertaining.  Any preconceptions you might have about Conway based on what I’ve said so far will be shattered by the deep reality of his true story.  Continue reading

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Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love

A few weeks ago, my wife and I saw The Bounty Hunter for date night (verdict: blah.  The movie, that is.  Not date night.).  First, however, among the previews was a trailer for this summer’s Julia Roberts vehicle, Eat, Pray, Love, which looked interesting.  I saw that it was based on a book, and put it on my hold list at the library. 

Verdict on this one: enjoyable, but don’t take it too seriously, if only because the author doesn’t.  The book opens as a standard confessional/tear-jerker/aren’t-you-impressed-by-my-suffering memoir, but she at least has the decency to write in a style so tongue-in-cheek, so self-effacing, that we realize this is just setting the stage for something better; author Elizabeth Gilbert knows how cloying these stories have become, and neatly sidesteps the land mine with some winsome humor.  Though her need to crack funny permeates the book, nowhere is it as strong, or as needed, as in this potentially-dark opening.

Once that is out of the way, though, and we know why she felt compelled to go off on a journey, the fun begins.  And it is fun: Gilbert is no tour guide showing the group what’s on our left or gently chiding us to keep back from the velvet ropes; rather, she’s the screwball friend we brought along on the trip for kicks and giggles, and who is untiring in fulfilling her expected task.  Like any good travel memoir, she shows more of people than of history and geography, though it all factors into an equation quite pleasantly balanced. 

Gilbert had decided to spend a year abroad: Continue reading