Betty or Veronica? Ginger or Mary Ann? These are the burning philosophical questions I chose to ask my husband on a recent vacation. Not Does God exist?, Are we really free?, or Do you believe in life after death? My queries are a little more basic than that. And apparently I am not alone.
I have been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” – a perfect summer book that is part travelogue, part memoir, part philosophy but mostly pure fun. This tale of one woman’s journey from Italy to India to Indonesia on a post-divorce self-help spree is told in an original voice and filled with self-deprecating humor and sensual memories of places, friends and sumptuous meals. But it is also a book that points out that no matter our situation – and no matter how smart we think we are – we are still mostly navel-watching. (Spoiler Alert: If you don’t click with Gilbert’s voice or sense of humor, the self-absorption in this book can be a little tiresome…)
But one truth that seems to bear out is that the only endlessly fascinating subject for most mere mortals is our love lives. Gilbert relates an example where a psychologist friend has been asked to counsel Cambodian boat refugees who have lived through war, strife and famine. When they sat down with the counselor to discuss their problems, guess what the majority wanted to talk about? Love triangles in the refugee camps! I believe it…
Taking a cue from Elizabeth Gilbert, summer is a great time to eat well, contemplate the meaning of life and fall in love. Here are a few books to recommend for each of those activities.
For eating, read: “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver for a look at how one family existed for a year on only home-grown and locally grown food. Enjoy “Julie and Julia” by blogger Julie Powell who for one year resolves to cook her way through 524 recipes in Julia Child’s tome “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” but not in a professional kitchen – in one tiny New York apartment. And don’t miss two light-hearted looks at food, Italy and love in “The Food of Love” by Anthony Capella and “Last Bite” by Nancy Verde Barr.
For contemplating the meaning of life, read: “Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith” by Anne Lamott, “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time” by Greg Mortenson , “The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew: Three Women Search for Understanding” by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner and “Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery” by Karen Armstrong. You might also want to listen to the National Public Radio feature “This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women” edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman – available both as a book and on CD. And lastly, if you think fiction will facilitate contemplation the best, try the Pulitzer-prize winning “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson, in which a Reverend in failing health writes a letter to his 7 year-old son meditating on fathers and children, on faith and on the flawed nature of man.
And if love is your subject (and you don’t insist on happy endings…) choose classics such as “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte, “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte or “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell. Historical fiction with a love theme could include: “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier, “March” by Geraldine Brooks and “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden. More contemporary love stories include “Little Children” by Tom Perrotta,, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger, “History of Love” by Nicole Krauss and “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen. Happy summer reading!