Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Good Books and Country Pubs in England

I’m back! I was in England these past two weeks researching NOT CRICKET and another novel in the works. After living in Oxford last year, it felt like coming home. We stayed with my husband’s family in Oxfordshire. I hear it rained for days on end in the USA, but the skies were mostly blue in England. That must be a first.

I met fellow blogger and friend, Bee, for lunch at the King William IV Pub in Hailey.

It couldn’t have been more scenic: a sunny hilltop overlooking a sheep farm at the end of a dirt road. This is actually the view from a picnic bench:

Sundays are barbecue days. Bee, a native Texan who now lives in England, was happy to tuck into tasty ribs and potato salad. I had Coronation Chicken and assorted salads. It was reasonably priced, and the setting was picture perfect. A kid friendly place too, although we left our kids and English husbands at home.

On a cooler day, it would have been cozy inside. After lunch, Bee and I walked along country lanes and through woods and fields, where we lost the path. We were so caught up in conversation, it hardly mattered. Bee posted her pub photos with a poem.

After our walk, we drove to The Swan at Streatley for cream tea. I didn't even have to ask Bee to pull over so we could photograph the Wizard of Oz like field of poppies (opening shot.)

The Swan's outdoor seating on the Thames was ideal, but the scones were overpriced and stale. A better choice would have been a pint of bitter (beer) or a Pimm’s on tap (a traditional English cocktail of fresh mint, fruits and liquor mixed with fizzy lemonade.) True to its name, swans swam by for a visit.

Like me, Bee is obsessed with books and bookstores. She recommended the Albion Beatnik in Jericho, just down the road from Oxford University Press. Although this quirky shop only just opened in November 2008, it felt like it had been in Oxford for decades. I went to visit it and 4 other bookstores in Oxford.

My favorite bookstore is still the library-sized Blackwell Bookshop.

I stepped into Waterstone’s to check out Girl Friday, the UK version of Jane Green’s latest novel. There was a huge poster on the shop window, advertising its release. I’m not quite sure why there are little white dogs on the cover since none feature in the story.

I prefer the American cover of Jane’s novel. They even have different titles. I’ll show a bunch more of UK versus American covers for the fun of it.

When it started raining, we jumped into Borders, and I laughed over the UK cover of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It shows the back of a slim, young woman in a ball gown even though the novel is set in coastal Maine and the protagonist is a large, elderly woman with no fashion sense.

The American cover of Olive Kitteridge fits the content better, although it looks dull. Don’t let the lame covers fool you. The interlocking stories in this novel are perfect, except for one dud, “Criminal.” The style is understated but evocative, chock full of perfect sentences and images. Here’s one gem from “Pharmacy:”

“A block of winter sun was splayed across the glass of the cosmetics shelf; a strip of wooden floor shone like honey.”

This novel by stories revolves around one central character who is as offensive as she is appealing. Olive is prejudiced towards Jews and daughter-in-laws, but she was also a special teacher who made the difference for many students. Love her or hate her, you’ll still adore this 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning book.

Even though I was traveling with a heavy suitcase full of books, I couldn’t resist buying Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie, highly recommended by dovegreyreader scribbles. I fell in love with the gorgeous UK cover and the story was captivating and original. Shamsie covers the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in Japan and partition in India before moving the narrative to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan. The writing is beautiful, but the transitions between eras are choppy. It might have worked better as a series of historical novels as opposed to one globe trotting book.

I loved the protagonist Hiroko, a gutsy Japanese woman who wears linen trousers instead of kimonos. She completely defies all western stereotypes of Japanese women (even if the American cover on the right does not.)

Unfortunately I could not finish the book. On page 215 Burnt Shadows skipped back to page 140, missing 50 pages. I was on an airplane home and couldn’t exchange it at Blackwell’s. My worst nightmare. Honestly, running out of reading material worries me more than crashing or hijacking.

Luckily I was traveling with a backup novel, Testimony by Anita Shreve (American cover left is similar to UK cover below right.) This highly readable novel was perfect plane fare. It opens with a disturbing scene: a 14-year-old girl at a prep school is caught on tape having sexual relations with three boy students who are 4-5 years older than her. In the state of Vermont this is legally considered sexual assault. The story, however, is morally ambiguous.

Shreve’s Testimony is told in multiple voices like a Jodi Picoult novel. The child in crisis theme also felt more Jodi Picoult than Anita Shreve. At the back was an interesting interview of Shreve in which she called teenaged drinking and alcoholism “an epidemic.” Testimony is a warning, one worth listening to. Shreve avoids sounding preachy in her page turner novel.

On the plane ride to England, I read a much lighter but equally engrossing novel. I had bought The Truth About Forever for my daughter to read, but she was still engrossed in Harry Potter. Many of her friends had recommended the author Sarah Dessen, and I can see why. Dessen writes very well and is true to the teenaged experience of self-discovery (American cover left, cool UK cover below right.)

The Truth About Forever is about a 17-year-old girl who tries to be the perfect daughter after her father died. All comes unhinged when Macy takes a summer job catering and meets a flawed young man. Wes is a talented artist and former juvenile delinquent. Through chaos and passion, Macy learns how to live again. I’d recommend this young adult novel for girls aged 11-17, and their moms too.

Speaking of mothers, my mother sent me the perfect book to read on my English vacation. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows currently #1 on the NYT bestseller list for paperback trade fiction. It deserves it. Both my mother and my mother-in-law loved this 1940s era novel.

I don’t usually like books written in letters, and I’ve read too many World War II books already. Still, I fell in love with the Potato book (the title is too long to remember.) It made me laugh and cry. The writing, characters and story were all top notch. Plus it was lightweight and easy to read in bits. The covers are the same in both countries, but the quality of the paper is better in the American version.

Yes, I'm a compulsive bookaholic. On my journey I bought 5 more books.

Like the lupins, your comments on my last post were a warm welcome home to Maine. Thank you! I have a bunch of work things I have to do today, but I'll be back online tomorrow to respond to comments and to visit blogs. I'm looking forward to catching up with you.


Gemma Mortlock said...

Hi Sarah
Wow what a great post, living in England myself i can definately vouch for the fantastic weather we have been recieveing (apparently tomorrow is going to be the hottest day so far!)
Your section on Olive Kitteridge made me smile as i have just started to read this novel (with the english cover) and i was actually wondering myself yesterday why there is a woman in a ball gown on the front!
Sounds like you had a wicked time in England,
Looking forward to tomorrows post

A Cuban In London said...

Yes, fair weather in dear old Blighty and stormy one in the USA. That would be a first. Lovely post and great to have you back. I, too, enjoy the pubs and their food. As for Oxford, I have only been to it once and that was with a few-months-old baby. Not to be recommended.

And fret not about your book addiction. I recently went to Brick Lane with my wife and had to have a stern conversation with myself to act wisely and not spend more money on books. I ended up buying her a book of William Blake's poems and I got me two other books, one with Shakespeare's sonnets and another one with a collection of poems by Yeats.

It was a pleasure to read your article. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

marc aurel said...

Welcome back. Always a pleasure to read your text. We'll be in Sussex soon for our holidays. I left England with a glad heart many years ago, but there is something very special about the place.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh jeepers....books and England, two of my favourite topics!! Wonderful suggestions, Sarah, and like you ... I have giggled at the UK cover of Olive Kitteridge. What was that all about??

To lose 50 pages in the middle of a book.... on an airplane. Truly a nightmare.

And the lovely lunch you had with Bee looked set in a Mary Poppins painting!!

Great enjoyable post! Welcome home.

Elizabeth said...

Your photo of the sheep almost made me weep for England.
So glad you spent time with Bee.
Was fascinated by the various book covers......yes, what on earth was the little white dog doing if he/she does not appear in the book.....?
I'm reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's remark (somewhere) about 'now available in lurid cover'.......
My first job was at Blackwell's and I used to have an account there in the 60' dangerous indeed.
Hope your research went well?
Welcome back!

Rosaria Williams said...

I'll have to return and read your reviews more carefully. Welcome back.

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

Karibu nyumbani! welcome back [home]. I had no idea book covers were so different across oceans. Don't author's have to approve them? :-)

Fantastic Forrest said...

I am insanely jealous of your day with Bee. That's it. I am definitely going to work this coming school year in order to earn enough for us to spend next summer in Europe. If I start to waver, I will just revisit this post. Bookmarking it now!

Also, thanks for the reading list.

One of these days, I'll have to show the kids the beauty of Maine, so you and I will get a chance to hang out too, Sarah! :-)

Bee said...

My photos look like pictures . . . and yours look like picture postcards! You got a truly hypnotic shot of that magical field of poppies.

I really enjoyed our day, Sarah. And it is always enjoyable to continue the conversation about books and other things here . . .

Do authors get approval of book covers? Some of those choices were just wacky. Burnt Shadows was more to my taste!

I hope we can hear more about your trip next week.

Laura said...

Unbelievable photos (including the book covers!) Looks and sounds like your trip was amazing and I loved that you included the round up of the books as well. Welcome home!

Keri Mikulski said...

Gorgeous pics! My mom loves England and can't wait to see it for herself. I'm going to share these pics with her. :)

Sounds like you had a blast. Welcome home. :)

Kathryn/ said...

Hi, Sarah--I got a kick out of the cover comparisons. I've spent a fair amount of time looking at and pondering the covers of "chic lit", always musing why they feature headless women (as a couple you've featured also carry). More importantly your trip sounds divine! Still traveling to the UK through your photos. Thanks. :)

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

What a wonderful, wonderful post. Oh, that sheep/landscape picture is absolutely fabulous. I love that one. And how neat for two book-loving, people-loving, England-loving bloggers to spend prime-plus time together!!!

Barrie said...

Thank you for posting about your trip. And the photos? Wow! It looks as though you had a wonderful time, and I'm jealous that you and Bee got together. well, not really jealous,but I wish I'd been there!

Tessa said...

Oh, I do wish I'd known you were coming over here! I could have taken you on a lovely literary tour of Hampshire and Dorest - with a stop for lunch at my favourite foody pub, The Peat Spade near Stockbridge. Never time.

Oddly enough, I too have dined at the King William...we have friends who live in the area. What fun for you and Beth to have met appear to have much in common.

My favourite bookstore is the London Foyles - a veritable treasure trove. I also love Daunts in Marylebone - not only for its huge travel section, but for the wonderful ambience.

I rather think Anita Shreve has written herself out of the league of literary luminaries. I find her recent work to be lacking in substance. However, I absolutely loved Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge.

A wonderful post, Sarah, and I'm so pleased to have caught up with those I missed while away in Turkey. I hope your research for NOT CRICKET went well....I look forward to reading it someday.

Sarah Laurence said...

Gemma, when you finish, let us know what your thought of Olive Kitteridge. England was fun although I’ve been super busy catching up with work after 2 weeks off. Now is the fun time to catch up with blogs. I’m not posting again today (I only post weekly.) I meant that I didn’t have time to respond to comments and visit blogs until now. After 2 weeks off, I miss you guys!

ACIL, the sun finally came back the USA today. You would love Oxford – plan a visit. Ha, another bookaholic! One of the books I bought in England was a dictionary of Shakespeare quotations. We already have the complete works. I drooled over the Shakespeare Ap. on my friend's iPhone.

Marc, have a great time in Sussex!

Pamela, usually book jacket designers work off of synopses without reading the book, but that one didn’t make any sense – wrong synopsis? Seeing Bee did feel like a Mary Poppins moment. Magical!

Elizabeth, I think you'd agree that England is at its best on a warm summer day. A wet, gray January – not so much. Now that I think of it, the UK book jacket would have been designed before Jane had finished writing Girl Friday/Dune Road. Lucky you to work at Blackwell’s for a first job. My research went really well. I’ll blog about it later.

Lakeviewer, it was book review overload, but reading is one my favorite things to do on vacation. I spent a lot of time in my in-law’s lovely garden with a book. Best way to beat jetlag.

Asante sana, Mama Shujaa! I don’t know much more Swahili than that. I always appreciate your mini lessons and comments. Authors get to see them, but covers are decided by publishers with very little if any consultations for foreign versions. Oddly enough, it’s very hard to sell an American book to a UK publisher. The bookstores can always just order from the US publishers.

FF, now that sounds like a fine goal to work towards. I’d love to see you in Maine too.

Bee, I loved your photos too, especially that door one. I wouldn’t have that poppy shot if you hadn’t thought to stop – thanks for that and a fabulous time! A DSLR and Lightroom makes all the difference, especially when shooting at midday. Authors see the cover and can voice an opinion, but the publisher has the final say. Often stock photos are used. The UK Burnt Shadow cover had to be one of the most beautiful covers I’d ever seen, and it fit the narrative. I asked Henry to pick me up another copy at Heathrow but to check the pagination. Next week is the book review club, but I will post more about my UK trip later.

Laura, it’s hard not to get beautiful photos in such scenery. A good books on vacation is like fine wine with dinner.

Keri, hi to your mom and thanks!

Kathryn, you get these funny trends in women’s fiction: headless women, backs of heads etc. I think it comes from working off the same stock photos.

Mimi, Bee and I have a lot in common – even purple shirts!

Barrie, we would have loved to have you there with us.

Tessa, I’d love to do that with you another visit or those London bookshops. This trip was short and filled with family, work and 2 special kid free nights of couple time. We didn’t have time to look up any friends, and we have so many in England. Bee lives near my in-laws and drove in to get me. We have so much in common that she almost feels like family. I definitely need to return. I’ve never seen Anita Shreve as a “literary luminary.” She writes engaging commercial women’s fiction that is good entertainment and well written too. Perfect for the plane or the beach. I need to get to your blog and hear about Turkey – wow! I’m looking forward to weaving in the new material I’ve gathered for NOT CRICKET. Your encouragement helps, thanks!

Kelly H-Y said...

Oh my ... the pictures from your pub lunch and the tea make me want to get on a plane and head to England at this very minute! Beautiful! The differing book covers crack me up ... what an interesting comparison!

Dawn Maria said...

Thank you for the English book tour. I sure hope to get there one day and do my own. I love to hear that someone else travels with books. I brought seven with me on my writing retreat (not counting magazines or comics) and purchased a new one, MARCH, Geraldine March's Pulitzer winner, at the local independent bookseller.

On the airplane over here, I saw plenty of books and not one Kindle. I wonder, what's the word in the UK about the e-readers?

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Happy to know you had a nice trip and thank-you for sharing your pictures. The sheep picture is so peaceful and what beautiful grass!
I also enjoyed reading the "good books" selections.
Tracy :)

Delwyn said...

Hello Sarah
I have arrived here via sapphire,

and found connections with fellow blogger Bee and also noticed Olive Kitteridge which a friend gave me to read along with a glowing recommendation. After reading the first two chapters I have put the book down - I find it too depressing...I asked my friend today if she bought the book herself. She did, and I said I could not buy a book with that cover (the bare backed girl) it would put me completely off the book - as it has is so incongruent as you say....

Book covers are so important and I have noticed that here in Au they are different to the US. I wonder if we have the UK covers here.

I have returned to A sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh but am finding that slow going too...

Thank you for these useful reviews.

Happy days

Rose said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful trip! And those poppies--they make the display at the Chicago Botanic Garden look miniscule:)

Thanks for all the book recommendations and the interesting info about their marketing in the UK. I knew that books had different covers for different countries, but I wonder if the choices reveal something about each society? So glad you enjoyed the Guernsey book--it's one I've been recommending to all my friends.

Unseen India Tours said...

This is so a nice post !! Beautiful photos and lovely location!! Your blog is really beautiful and i really enjoyed reading it..Thanks for sharing..Unseen Rajasthan

Mary Ellen said...

Hi Sarah - welcome back. I'm a little jealous, but happy for you that you skipped the terrible weather we've been having. Just in case it wasn't a coincidence, maybe you better stay in Maine for the rest of the summer!

I loved the comparison covers. I guess I never really thought about the fact that there might be different covers in other countries, but marketing reigns supreme, I suppose.

I'm just back from my weekly trip to the library with a stack of books including Shanghai Girls and The Help. Sunshine and books - two things I adore.

Sarah Laurence said...

Kelly, the English countryside on a sunny summer day really is that gorgeous. I had fun comparing covers.

Dawn, March is on my to read list. In April I read and reviewed Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book. Good to hear you enjoyed your retreat and bought a book at an independent bookstore. I heard of a new ebook reader made in the UK that is cheaper. I’ve never tried an ebook reader, but every time I travel with a heavy bag of books, I wish I had one. I still love owning physical books but not the back pain.

Tracy, thanks!

Delwyn, welcome to my blog! I enjoyed Sapphire’s blog and am looking forward to visiting yours. Some of the stories in Olive Kitteridge are brighter, but it’s not a feel good read. I still LOVED the writing. If you are looking for something lighter and sunnier try Dune Road/Girl Friday or The Beach House both by Jane Green. I’m waiting for Sea of Poppies to come out in paperback. Ghosh’s Hungry Tide was one of my favorite novels.

Rose, I have never seen so many poppies at once. I was wondering the same thing. The question remains: should we judge a culture by its cover? I’m not surprised that you loved the Potato book.

U.R., welcome to my blog and thank you! Will visit you soon.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mary Ellen, I don’t understand the art (science?) of book jacket marketing. I’d hope to be above it, but I admit a good cover will make me pick up a book. Enjoy your reading in the sun. Hmm, I spoke to soon. It looks almost stormy.

Shauna said...

What lovely photos and I'm SO glad you got to meet Bee!

It sounds like a wonderful time (and more books too)!

tina said...

Hi Sarah, Welcome home! Oh boy I so love that opening photo. It must have been so unworldly, just like you said, Wizard of Oz for sure. Hi to Bee too!

Dave King said...

It must be the case that Oxford has the edge on London now for book stores. A great post. I enjoyed every word and picture of it. Made me really glad I live here!

Sarah Laurence said...

Shauna, it was fun to connect with our Bee.

Tina, I knew you’d love the poppies. There were red ones growing wild elsewhere but not as many. These pink-white ones are cultivated for pharmaceutical purposes.

Dave, Oxford must have the thickest density of bookstores. There are more like OUP shop and discount ones I didn’t mention plus another independent store in Somerville. Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA used to be like that, but now it is only down to two. You are lucky to live in England.

cynthia newberry martin said...

I love the comparison of covers. The UK really missed it with Olive Kitteridge, and I love the US cover you show. My hardback first edition has an even different cover, which is a close-up of the back of a leaf, showing all its branches.

I hate what happened with the missing pages of your book! And I agree, there the UK cover is beautiful, so much better than the US one.

I also share your fear of nothing to read and have in the past always included a backup novel. No longer necessary--a perk of the Kindle.

Donna said...

What a great trip it sounds like you had! I hope you got some good research done for your book.
I really enjoyed the beautiful pictures of England. Someday I will go there. I also liked seeing the book cover comparisons as well as your fun little book reviews.
Do you know why some books are titled differently in different countries? I've always wondered about that.

Sarah Laurence said...

CNM, there are definitely good reasons for traveling with a Kindle. One day….

Donna, it was both a productive and fun trip. Different marketing teams make the book cover decisions to fit their culture. Jane Green’s latest book is a good example: Brits often refer to assistants as Boy or Girl Fridays, but not in the US. The American publishers were probably keen to make Dune Road sound like a beach book and a follow up on her NYT bestseller The Beach House. Jane’s books frequently have different titles. The first Harry Potter book had 2 names: Philosopher’s Stone in the UK and Sorcerer’s Stone in the US. There were also differences in the text which is why we bought the UK HPs.

TBM said...

Oh what a treat to see you and Bee together! And of course, it was lovely to see so much of England, especially though your eyes. I have really missed all that green goodness.

Thank you for all your book recommendations. It's a little harder to find English books here in the NL, so I really appreciate your list.

Sarah Laurence said...

JAPRA, it’s a shame you had already moved away. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the NL.

Fifi Flowers said...

Intresting the different titles and designs... hmmmmm