30 Books in 30 Days: 8.31.11

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Many will be familiar with Sittenfeld’s popular book Prep, a book that I highly recommend.  It is a moving and realistic portrayal of one young girl’s navigation of the privileged realm of the private boarding school.

While American Wife possesses all of Sittenfeld’s strong narrative qualities, it is in fact more wide-ranging in its scope and extensive in its character depth and is a very different book.

What’s the book about?  Laura Bush.  This hardly seems like a book that I would want to read, much less end up raving about.  And yet, I really do want to rave about it.  I find this book fascinating and intelligent and illuminating.  Here’s what Sittenfeld does: she writes a fictionalized account of the ex-first lady’s life based upon extensive research she did into Laura Bush’s life.  By fictionalizing this account, (our main character is in fact named Alice Blackwell), Sittenfeld is able to narrate her way into the mindset and life of her character while taking some creative license.  Sittenfeld’s book is dense.  It is ultimately a book that humanizes both Laura Bush as well as her husband.  It moves from the time when Laura was a school librarian, working on her own and spending time at night creating elaborate creative projects for her students, up through the relative present, showing the moment when the U.S. declares war on Iraq.  Sittenfeld creates scenes of Bush family opulence, recreating their various residences as well as family vacation retreats.  Sittenfeld also brings us into the various geographical locales that the family moves to over the years.  We learn of Laura Bush’s painful high school accident where she was responsible for the death of a friend in an automobile accident.  We learn of her deep love for the president amidst her awareness of his very real flaws.

Read this book.  You will come away with a deeper understanding of Laura Bush and her marriage to her husband.

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30 Books in 30 Days: 8.30.11

Thought I’d spend this post offering some recommendations for good writing books.  Throughout my life really, I have just inhaled writing how-to book after writing how-to book.  Something about their tone just appeals to me.  Much like my favorite genre, memoir, it’s the mix of personal confessional tone along with the story of one’s birth as a writer that appeals to me.  Most of my favs are pretty well-known.  In my early teens I gravitated toward Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.  It may, in fact, have been a gift from my grandmother, who was a poet.  I loved Writing Down the Bones and loved hearing about Goldberg’s experiences with a Zen Master in Minnesota.  She also describes her experiences coming out to her parents, and uses this as a model for how not to hold back in writing.  This was the first time I heard the very common writerly advice to lay it all out in one’s writing practice, regardless of your sense of family reaction, etc. I was happy to find Goldberg’s other titles Wild Mind, which was almost equal in terms of how much I liked it, and Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America, which seemed like drivel that she was able to publish simply on the success of her other titles!  Still, she remains my first influence from the plethora of writing guides that are out there.  Others that have been great reads, the very popular Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, the older title, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande and The Right to Write by Julia Cameron (and, really, any of Cameron’s title on creativity and writing are true gems.)

There are as many writing guides as there are personalities out there!  Suffice it to say that the above guides are more like letters from true friends who tell of their successes and most personal foibles as they engage in the writing life.  The tone in all of these is very casual, very candid and very conversational. And some of them have great jump-starting exercises interspersed throughout.

If you’re looking for more formal guides, methodical guides, guides that lead you through exercises—or anything else–you can find them at your local bookstore or online.  Seek out your writing guides and they will find you–the ones that fit your style and voice.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.29.11

Life on the Outside by Jennifer Gonnerman

I was riveted by this book.  Gonnerman’s reporting is excellent. She spent a year or two following the life of Elaine Bartlett, a woman who is freed from jail and then has to pick up the pieces once back in the real world.  Gonnerman’s premise for the book is that no one follows peoples’ lives once they are out of jail.  How do you repair a life and a family life that has been irrevocably splintered by time away?

Gonnerman shows Bartlett’s struggles to find employment and to keep her children together.  There is no sugar-coating in Gonnerman’s portrayal.  She doesn’t gloss over the mistakes that Bartlett makes nor does she hold back in her descriptions of the injustices that occur as a result of the justice system.  For a glimpse into the life of a woman who undergoes struggles that many in similar roles experience, pick up this book.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.1.11

For my first post, I thought I’d write about the genre of books that has been taking up a good deal of my reading life–right alongside my more serious reads:  chick lit.  Now, that term is of course, reductionist.  A term created to allow easy categorization and perhaps sales.  Nonetheless, I use the term with great endearment as it applies to some books that have given me a lot of good reading pleasure because of their catchy plots, lively dialogue, and zippy prose.  And, what I keep finding in all of these books, is that encased in these popular titles are great descriptions of settings, humorous observations on dynamics between men and women, and really insightful, poignant portrayals of some of the traits of female friendships.  Yes, many of these traits are not always positive.  But, they are realistic.  For example:  the bossy friend, the popular friend, the mousy friend who gets the guy, the beautiful friend who is secretly insecure, the disloyal friend, etc.  Of course, often these rather negative traits are highlighted at the expense of the multiple OTHER traits of female friendships, and that might be why the term “chick lit” can get a bad rep.  Regardless, there is value in what these books depict.  Along the way there are some great portrayals of teenage life in the 80s and 90s, realistic portrayals of what happens when friends grow up, transitioning from middle school to high school to college and even into the 20s and 30s.

The authors I have been reading are:  Emily Giffin (over the past year, I read every title she’s written and am eagerly awaiting her 2012 title.); Jane Green, and Jennifer Weiner.  And of course there are others.  These are just the three who I have been reading in earnest in the last year.

Jane Green came into my hands this past spring when my then roommate offered me her entire Jane Green collection as she was cleaning out her bookshelves in preparation for her move to another state.  I took the books happily, excitedly thinking how they would start my summer off right.  The books she gave me are the ones Green wrote when she was living in England, her earlier titles.  These books immediately grabbed my heart because of their English-isms sprinkled throughout, phrases like, “that’s so naff!” and “we snogged”.  The English setting adds some charm and perhaps elevates the books above what might be a more familiar American chick lit novel.  Her characters also tend to fall less into the category of friends who are at odds with each other. In fact, most of the female friendships in these novels are sources of support and humor.  Her best novels so far as Jemima J and Bookends.  I am reading Mr. Maybe and also read Straight Talk, Dune Road and To Have and to Hold.  Some things I’ve observed about Green’s novels:  Her narrators are charming and usually flawed–girls who aren’t the most beautiful or the most popular, but have something in them keeping us loving them.  I have noted that every once in awhile Green uses a line or idea that showed up in an earlier novel. Does she assume that her readers won’t be reading all of her books?!

Just why did I enjoy Jemima J so much?  Oddly enough, it took me a few chapters to realize that this novel was indeed a modern-day Cinderella story.  The most familiar element that gave it away?  The main character’s two roommates who just really were completely obvious  stand ins for Cinderella’s two ugly step sisters. I guess, in the end, fairy tales like Cinderella work because of their archetypal depiction of the victory of the underdog.  We all love reading that!  Green’s novels are also endearing because her characters often work in some kind of literary job:  PR, journalism, a bookstore.  For Green’s readers, booklovers, reading about booklovers is just fun.  We see ourselves in her bookloving characters.

Time to sign out–tomorrow I will continue my musings on chick lit–perhaps covering Jennifer Weiner and a couple of other authors who may or may not fall into the chick-lit category but who, nonetheless, depict many of the same topics as the authors I have named.