Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fall Foliage and Books

Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife grabbed me on page one, in the presidential bedroom. The wife, a cameo Laura Bush, questions her choices and ponders her unique situation given her regular midwestern roots. Alice can’t sleep while her husband snores. This fictional memoir can be funny and very personal. It is painfully true to our times. Along with Barack Obama’s memoirs (my blog on the first,) American Wife is “the book” to read this election season.

Bowdoin College, Maine
where my husband teaches politics

American Wife follows the president’s wife from her small town childhood to the White House. Sittenfeld is a master of creating a sense of place. By the book “she writes what she knows.” The author was raised in the midwest like her protagonists in American Wife and in Prep, her first novel. She taught at a similar exclusive prep school. In Prep I pictured a campus like Bowdoin College’s.

Bowdoin College campus

Sittenfeld’s descriptive prose is lovely and not overdone. Her writing is understated and truly beautiful in places, and yet it’s quiet enough not to distract you from the first person narrative. You see the world through her eyes. Alice is a totally sympathetic character. In this way Sittenfeld’s third novel is the opposite of her first novel, Prep, with its unlikable protagonist. She has grown as an author.

I find the midwestern setting in Sittenfeld’s writing personally appealing. My mother’s family is from Kansas City. My aunt Virginia Huber lives in Madison, Wisconsin where part of American Wife is set. I can also relate to small town life after moving to Maine. American Wife will give you a real sense of the American heartlands, and it does so lyrically.

Farm in Brunswick, Maine

If the strengths of American Wife are the protagonist, the setting and the fine writing, then the weakness is the caricature husband, the president. There isn’t much nuance between Sittenfeld’s kind-hearted Democrats and her spoiled, wealthy Republicans. The story also rambles a bit like a memoir. It still is a book well worth reading and admiring.

A maple near my house

So how do I choose the books I review? I look for books that I think I’ll like so the book list in my sidebar is recommended reading as opposed to critical reviews. I never give an ending away or reveal too much of a book’s plot as I hate it when critics spoil a book I plan to read.

I read commercial as well as literary fiction, with an interest in books that straddle that divide. I’m especially interested in new releases. I’m a sucker for good writing and books that tackle the issues. Character and setting matter. I want to fall in love. What I look for in my reading is what I aspire to in my writing. The best teacher is a good book. Having a unique voice is important too.

My reviews are short and part of the personal story I’m telling. I have never torn apart a book in my blog because I would share the author’s pain. I’m an aspiring novelist myself, and authors are habitual self-googlers. I’m still going to be honest about a book’s strengths and weaknesses.

Bowdoin College Chapel

I first heard about American Wife in my most trusted book review source, The New York Times. I also read reviews in People Magazine, The New Yorker etc. That etc. gets shorter every year. Sadly, book reviewing seems to be a dying art in the print media. Newspapers keep cutting those sections. Then again newspapers aren’t doing well either.

Happily book reviewing is finding a second life in blogs. It was author/blogger Jane Green who urged me to read American Wife. The novel had favorable reviews, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. I’m no fan of the Bush administration, with markets crashing and the war even less so. Add to that, I like to think of women as more than wives, but American Wife was so much more than that. Thank you, Jane!

Readers: What was the best book you’ve read lately and why?
How did you choose it?

Gardeners: these wildflowers are the only thing left blooming in my garden. What are they called? The leaves are at peak color in Maine. I’ll have more photos next week from the our White Mountains hike over Columbus Day Weekend. This post is part of Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day. Visit to see what else is blooming around the world or to add a link to your garden post.

The woods in my backyard


joco said...

Hiya Sarah,

How does it feel to be back home? Like you never left?

First off: Go wash you hands if you touched that plant. I reckon it is a Monkshood (Aconite) and the most poisonous of all plants around. Better still yank it out.

But you knew that already, didn't you :-)
What is this new gimmick in almost every blog I read, to end a post with a question to try and coax a reaction. Has anybody been giving tuition in cultivating traffic? I hope not.

BTW, your cygnets have grown up and are no longer brown.

Alyson | New England Living said...

I love how you put your personal pictures in to correspond to what you were talking about in your book review.

I loved "The Giant's House". It's a bit of a quirky story about a boy who doesn't stop growing and an unlikely love that grows between him and the town libarian. It's set in Cape Cod. I often choose what I read by where it is located because sometimes I want to read about small town New England. I also choose based on if the story sounds you unique or resonates with something I've felt or experienced.

Sarah Laurence said...

Joco, I’m sure glad I asked that question! I had no idea those wildflowers were poisonous. How sad since they are such a gorgeous shade of blue-purple and hardy. I’ll get the identification confirmed and then remove them.

Thanks, too, for checking on my cygnets. I’m glad to hear they have grown into swans. It is nice to be home, but I miss those walks along the Thames/Isis with "my" swans. Sometimes I feel like I dreamed that year, and it was a good dream. Still, home is home. I feel most comfortable here. Nothing is more beautiful than a New England fall. I'm enjoying turning my Oxford memories into my next novel, NOT CRICKET. Is it my swan song for England? Oops, another question. I can't help it -I'm more of a conversationalist than a lecturer. I’ll come visit your GBBD post soon. It’s so nice to be back in touch. These garden parties are fun.

Alyson, I’m relieved to hear the photos plus book review garden post worked. Only posting once a week it can be hard to choose one subject. The Giant’s House sounds original and certainly quirky. I feel a bit like that with a teenaged son in my house. I like New England stories, but I also like novels that show me other beautiful places around the world.

Cindy said...

Hi Sarah ~ Beautiful pictures of Maine's autumn for this post. The blue in that wildflower is stunning.
I enjoyed your aunt's site, what do you think of her book Trusting the Muses ?

A Cuban In London said...

Beautiful images as usual. It is becoming a habit of mine to pop in on a Wednesday just before I shoot off from work and then come back in the evening after the children are in bed to read your latest post in a more relaxed way.

It looks like 'American Wife' is the book to read. It had a good review in The Guardian Saturday Review (that's my guide, by the way, I read the paper every day and The Observer on Sundays and I am always looking through the recommendations).

I like your approach to book-reviewing. I don't agree that it's a dying breed, though. What's happened is that the old print dynasty has been trickling into the blogosphere, little by little, sometimes with good quality like your own outings, some other times, that's not the case, but the process has been very democratic. Book reviewing, thus, has added an option, rather than suppressing it. What we, book lovers, must do now is to be selective and separate the wheat from the chaff.

Beautiful post which I will come back to later.

Greetings from London.

LINDA from Each Little World said...

Hello Sarah!

I discovered you on GBBD and liked your name and location, so here I am. I'm bookmarking you after reading this post. I've done a lot of book reviewing with a very similar attitude to yours. Nicely done!

I've only been blogging not quite two months after 25 years in the newsroom. (Got downsized in April). I'm doing a bit of gardening, cooking, art, books — what strikes my fancy.

In the manner of Six Degrees of Blogdom, I live in Madison and know Virginia. Not well but we do have lots of mutual friends.

If you go to my blog — — you can read the details about me. But suffice it to say that I have a background in art, read a lot, write and blog so I am looking forward to Wednesdays already.

As for what I'm reading? I have a strange mix of tastes. Just finished two bios: Snowdon by Anne deCourcy and Beatrix Potter by Linda Lear. Reading lots of things from Persephone Books in UK and in the midst of "The Promised Land" about the black migration to Chicago and another one that's a memoir of Detroit.

I don't do much contemporary fiction though you've rather got me interested in the President's Wife.

TBM said...

Really stunning foliage photos! The colours in the first one are so lovely and delicate.

On my way into London yesterday, I started The English Patient, but Bee gave me Julie & Julia My Year of Cooking Dangerously and now I can't stop. So J & J first and then I will continue with EP.

And thank you, Ms. Wis./Each Little World for reminding me that I would like to read the Beatrix Potter biography.

Elizabeth said...

Excellent review. You make me want to read something I was a little hesitant about - though I might go to see the oliver Stone movie.
The American woman writer I'm thrilled with right now is
Have you read "This Book will save Your life"?
Also "The Mistresses Daughter".
Oddly, though both are stunning reading, both tend to tail off a bit.
I have recently loved reading "Good Evening Mrs.Craven" by Mollie Panter- Downe (Persephone Books) vignettes from ww2 England written at the time.
Such exquisite detail.

Charlotte Agell said...

It's such a lovely time of year in our town and you capture it so beautifully. I had been meaning to say here in this forum WOW/thanks for the blog coverage, both of Shift and of the 10x10 show (last count, over 4O sold!)....and, how your photos from the fort end of Popham reminded me of how my family flew an abandoned white kite, long ago, and how it flew off over the bay toward Georgetown, with boats stopping to try and catch it (shades of The Red Balloon) and how it sailed off over the houses and the hill. In my mind it's flying free still!

Donna said...

Your photos are stunning!

That's really neat that your husband teaches at Bowdoin. One of my best friends from high school went to Bowdoin and she loved it there.

I read Prep a few years ago and I was impressed with Curtis Sittenfeld's writing. I was drawn right into that book. Your review of American Wife is helpful. I've heard and read a lot about this book for the past few months. It sounds like a very interesting read.

I recently read The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. It was wonderful. She uses words and language in such a rich yet simple way. I don't know how writers do that! They make it look easy to make language flow so effortlessly and beautifully. Apart from that, the story itself was one of the most imaginative and mysterious I'd read in awhile. I could hardly put it down.

You're friends with Jane Green? I love her books!

Bee said...

I was just reading a review of "American Wife" at breakfast this morning . . . the Saturday Guardian one, in fact, that "a cuban in london" refers to. Funnily enough, even though I am a keen reader of book reviews -- a more personal recommendation will get me off the fence and straight into book procurement mode. (I followed your C.S. link and ended up reading about Curtis's ten favorite books. I am a sucker for that sort of thing, and she had an interesting list.)
I'm just finishing "Water for Elephants" -- which a friend in Saratoga mentioned last summer. It is a fast-paced, engrossing read -- but I wouldn't rave over it. I'm about to start Zoe Heller's "The Believers."

Sorry to hear that your lovely blue flower is a poisonous pest!

I'm looking forward to more photos of the beautiful fall foliage.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cindy, the leaves are at their best now. Virginia Huber is a talented and successful painter as well as a popular teacher. She’s always expressed herself well so I’d expect her book to be equally good. I only just learned that she had written a book, but I’ve admired her artwork for years. She’s given me really helpful advice on life as a professional artist.

ACIL, how nice it is to be part of your week! I enjoyed reading the English newspaper while living there and still check the BBC homepage daily. It’s good to hear that UK book critics are going strong. I find it distressing reading about cuts on this side of the Atlantic. Excellent point on separating the wheat from the chaff – that is a big benefit of professional journalism and trained book critics although I love blogs too. I believe there is room for both.

Ms. Wis, I laughed over your Six Degrees of Blogdom – you could track it via links. That is wild that you know my Aunt Virginia. I can see that you are a woman of words as well as blooms. I’m so sorry to hear that you were downsized from the newsroom. I have several journalist friends, and they all feel glum about the future. I’m a multi-media consumer and still get 2 newspapers delivered. Thanks for your book recommendations. As you can see below, another blog reader just picked up on one of them.

JAPRA, the Julia-Julia blog was one of the first I read when I was trying to figure out how to blog. I grew up with my mother watching Julia Child on TV. Julia Child shopped at the butcher shop Henry and I frequented when living in Cambridge, MA. It’s so cool that her blog turned into a book deal.

Elizabeth, the preview for “W” looked amusing but loud. American Wife is quiet and subtle. It’s encouraging to think that soon we will all be looking back on these Bush years instead of muddling through them. I haven’t read A.M. Homes, thanks for the recommendation.

Charlotte, it’s a pleasure as I enjoy your art and writing. Your little vignette about the lost kite is enchanting. The Red Balloon was one of my favorites as a kid too. Maybe you’ll write another picture book called The White Kite?

Donna, Henry has been teaching at Bowdoin for 11 years. Does that overlap with your friend? It’s a terrific college. I’ll be interested to hear your take on American Wife. I really enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale too. It felt very old-fashioned from a time when storytelling was considered an art and writing was very precise. Setterfield avoids the sex and bodily functions that Sittenfeld embraces. They are clearly different generations even if they are contemporary authors. My relationship with Jane Green is described in this post. I really enjoyed Jane’s latest novel. It sounds like we have similar taste in reading.

Bee, I imagine the Guardian would have loved American Wife. That’s fun that you and ACIL read the same review section and blog. Ms. Wis is so right about her Six Degrees of Blogdom. It could also be that like minds will find each other in cyberspace. I like personal book recommendations too which is exactly why I’ve asked my blog readers what they are reading. Because I read a lot of new releases, I’m often the first in my circle so I need to rely more on book reviews.

I enjoyed reading Water for Elephants two summers ago. I totally fell in love with the elephant. As a writer, I admired Gruen’s facility in switching from the aged vet in a nursing home to the Depression era circus. It was so well structured and thoroughly researched. The only part that didn’t grab me, unfortunately, was the main storyline of the love triangle.

I’m really sad about my toxic blue flowers. I’m hoping they will prove to be harmless but grateful for Joco’s warning. I’m off to catch up on your blogs and then to visit some GBBD posts. I need some sunshine and color on this rainy day. It was at least good novel writing weather, hence my slow responses. It’s great to have all these book recommendations. I hope we get more.

Rose said...

The fall foliage in your photos is spectacular, Sarah! You've reminded me that I should take a walk on our local campus. Spring and fall were always my favorite times of year while in college; most colleges I've visited seem to understand the importance of planting trees. The buildings may or may not be interesting, but the trees were always beautiful.

As for the best book I've read recently, I must admit I've read a lot of "fluff" in the last few months. I did finish Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, but it was not my favorite. It's been a couple years since I read The Secret Life of Bees, but since the movie is coming out this weekend, I'll have to give it a plug. That was a book I thoroughly enjoyed; impressions from it stayed with me for a long time.

Bee said...

I completely agree with your comments about "Water for Elephants." I'm impressed that you can remember so much about a novel that you read two years ago! From what I've read of the author interviews, many of the best bit from the novel were taken from anecdotal history. Depression-era circuses are obviously full of color.

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, I’d love to see your leaves as ours are dropping. Mature trees make a campus. A Thousand Acres was very dark, but it was so well written. I thoroughly enjoyed The Secret Lives of Bees. Somehow Sue Monk Kidd managed to turn child abuse, death and bigotry into a heart-warming tale. The NYT had a review on the movie today and accused it of being saccharine, but the he didn’t seem to like the novel much better.

Bee, some books are more memorable than others. I’m especially interested in books dealing with two time periods because I’m dealing with that issue in my latest novel. I studied McEwen’s Atonement too for chronological structure. You start with a story, but there are many options on how to tell it.

tina said...

Hi Sarah! I am going to have to agree with Joco, I think this must be some kind of wolf's bane or Aconitum. Sorry I can't help you more.

The best book I have read lately I just read today. It is Perennials by Rob Proctor. It explains the history of old fashioned perennials, or as he puts it, he describes perennials with a history. Coincidentally, Aconitum (your pictured flower) is in it. This plant is a very popular plant despite its poisonous qualities. According to Proctor, legend has it that when Hercules battled Cerberus, the three headed dog guarding the gates of Hades, at a hill called Aconitus and when the foam from Cerberus's rabid mouth fell upon the ground these poisonous flowers sprang up. There is more but I won't bore you with here! I find it fascinating and you took a great photo. Very pretty.

P.S. The blueberries ARE very good!

A Cuban In London said...

I owed you a visit as the previous one was too short.

'Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife grabbed me on page one, in the presidential bedroom.'

I chuckled at the idea of being seduced by a book in a boudoir, but you know we all have our fantasies :-)

Serious now. I like your guidelines for reviewing. You're right in that endings should never be given away and that too much delving in an author's life might detract readers from the purpose of the review: to serve as a link between the piece and future, potential readers.

Whenever I have reviewed books or music (and I have just had two book reviews published in a new website, details to follow) I limit myself to 250-350 words. According to the posts I have read by you, you have the same tendency. English is excellent for this language economy, Spanish is not. Too many subordinate clauses. English is succinct and to the point. Spanish... well, Spanish waxes lyrical if given the chance.

The book that has impacted me the most in the last couple of months was 'Shame' by Salman Rushdie (review on my blog, by the way). Rushdie manages to play with language and images in a way that many writers fear and others run away from. He is fearless and playful. By no means, undertand this as glib narrative. After reading three of his novels, I can vouch for his earnestness, but it's an earnestness accompanied by a friendly wink, and that's what I look for in literature. A challenge, but bereft of pretentiousness. Write because you have a story to tell, Mr/Miss/Mrs/Ms Writer, not because you want to impress me with your style or lingo.

Well, up to here my contribution. I look forward to your next post.

Greetings from London.

Brenda Pruitt said...

Beautiful photos, Sarah. I've been interested in reading this book myself. I'm no fan of the Bush administration myself; far from it. I read about the book in People. Funny, you saying that about book reviews; in People I always skip over the music and movies and go straight for the book reviews!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I do enjoy your book reviews very much. Like you, I read the Times favorite Sunday section! A good, fair and thorough review is an art in itself. The book I have recommended to everyone this year was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, and I think I chose it based on a review that I read. I have read previous works by Mr. Bennett and found him witty and smart, and his books very enjoyable. I have also re-read a lot of classics this year, which was like eating dessert with every meal.

kari and kijsa said...

What beautiful fall photos! Thanks for the book review!

Have a great weekend!
kari & kijsa

Dave King said...

This is my first visit to your blog, and I am absolutely bowled over by this post. It is quite unlike any other I have read. I shall certainly be back for more!

Carol Michel said...

I'm reminded of the quote from Cicero, something along the lines of "if you have books and a garden, you have everything you need". I like how you provided both a book review and pictures of the beautiful fall in Maine in this post.

Thanks for joining in for bloom day once again.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, Proctor’s Perennials sounds fascinating. I hope you’ll recount more stories in your garden blog. It’s kind of funny. All you gardeners have been waiting to see my garden in Maine, and I post rabid 3-headed dog flowers with an illustrious literary past. Talk about NOT having a green thumb! So, what’s the best way to rid my flower bed of these poisonous pests?

ACIL, I enjoy your double visits. It’s fun to hear your first impression and then a thoughtful response. Part of what I like about books straddling the literary-commercial divide is they aren’t afraid to tackle everyday sex without demonizing it. I found it fascinating the linguistic differences you noted in book reviewing. In writing it’s so much about how you say something. I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read Rushdie, and you make his writing sound so appealing. Which was your favorite of his novels?

Brenda, welcome to my blog! The People Magazine reviews are short but very good. They review a lot of books in my genre. Serious writer/critics like Francine Prose write People reviews. Plus it’s fun to check out the celebrity pix along the way. Your button blog sounds original.

Pamela, I’ve just come from reading the NYT book section with a cup of tea. It’s a favorite part of Sunday mornings. There was an interesting review by author/critic Claire Massud of a biography on Virginia Woolf and her domestic help. I know Alan Bennett more as an English playwright and comedian – I loved The Madness of King George movie and The History Boys was one of the best and funniest plays I’ve ever seen. The movie version was good too. I should definitely read his books. Thanks for reminding me.

Kari and Kijsa, thank you and welcome to my blog! I’m looking forward to visiting yours.

Welcome and thank you so much, Dave! I’m eager to read your poetry/art blog.

Carol, thanks for organizing another beautiful Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. That Cicero quotation is prefect.

A Cuban In London said...

I have only read three Rushdie's novels, 'The Satanic...', 'Midnight...' and 'Shame'. 'The Satanic...' is my favourite.

Greetings from London.

Shauna said...

Your photos are fabulous and make me miss the change of seasons even more! :) Great review. Most recently I read David Sedaris' When You are Engulfed in Flames. It's not his best, but he's always good for a quick read and a chuckle. I'm happy to see your review and will have to look for it at the library.

Sarah Laurence said...

ACIL, thanks!

Shauna, I broke the ice on my dog’s water bowl this morning. I’ll be pining for California when it’s cold and dark but not snowy. I love Sedaris too. I know first hand how hard it is to write humor, so it’s not surprising he misses occasionally.

kate smudges said...

I enjoyed your review of 'American Wife'. It sounds as if it would be a good read - shall have to track it down. Your photographs are beautiful!

Oh please don't yank out your Monkshood (Aconitum napellus, I think) I have several in my garden and they are beautiful in summer and autumn. If we pulled all the poisonous plants out of the garden. (Unless you have small children who eat plants, I don't see the harm).

Sarah Laurence said...

Kate, you have stayed my hand. I couldn’t bear to do the dirty deed. The blooms are so lovely and fenced off from my dog already. My kids are too old for plant eating.