Reviews of books (fiction, non-fiction and graphic novels) that I’ve read, and the occasional review of odd things like podcasts or lecture series too.

Review: “American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld

(Sittenfeld’s debut novel “Prep” is one of my favourite coming-of-age novels (alongside “I Capture The Castle“”), and not just because of how heavily I identified with the self-doubt and self-esteem issues of the main character, Lee Fiora – I’ve read it, I don’t know, maybe eight or nine times. I think this is my third reading of “American Wife”.)

American Wife” is openly inspired by the life of Laura Bush: in particular, her love of reading and career choices, her involvement in a car crash that resulted in the death of her friend (possibly boyfriend) at the age of 17, and marrying a rich party boy who would go on to be declared president in 2000 and lead the country into an unpopular and protract war (or rather wars). It is a fictionalised account of fictional characters, but there is heavy leaning on Bush’s story: I found this both interesting and a hindrance.

The novel is narrated by its protagonist Alice Blackwell from the vanity point of 2006 and is divided into four parts: the first covering her childhood up to the car crash and an abortion after she has (understandable but) misguided sex with her now dead friend’s brother; the second section jumps forward a decade or so, to when she meets “Charlie”; the third section jumps another decade, to a crisis in their marriage and his ultimate reform, which puts him on his path to the fourth section, which takes place during his second term at the White House and as a good novel should, pulls together all the themes and loose ends covered thus far.

Alice is a serious (though not cold) introspective reader and it feels like she spends considerably more time reacting to other and analysing things than doing. In the first section her narrative is driven by her more active grandmother Emilie and her best friend Dena but it feels rather a preamble – giving us a reason to care about Andrew before he dies in the car crash and setting up Alice’s big secret (the abortion) so it can be used again in the final act.

The novel really comes alive (and Emilie & Dena get sidelined) when she meets Charlie. Sittenfeld does an admirable job to convince us why quiet liberal Alice might fall for lightweight diehard-Republican Charlie – his charisma simply oozes off the page. I felt quite caught up in the whirlwind of their courtship, which made it more difficult to read about their marriage troubles later on – I very much felt the stings of the hurtful lines that Charlie threw at Alice in the darkest period. As we know that she returns to him after their separation (or else she won’t become the First Lady that is narrating), the interest in their temporary split is not one of story but one of how she will rationalise her return to him.

Their romance aside, Charlie’s family – his many brothers, his fearsome mother and his surprisingly warm father – play a large role in the middle two sections. I have mixed feelings towards them – I’m interested on a looky-loo level — how the other half 1% live — but found their number and boisterousness was anxiety-inducing enough without needing the more manufactured scenes to showcase Alice’s discomfort (the bathroom episode in Halycon being most obvious but also her numerous run-ins with Maj).

While the novel as a whole covers around more than fifty years of Alice’s life, we see much of it in close up – after skipping over her early childhood, we focus for around six weeks at the age of 17, then spend a similar amount of time exploring her courtship and marital crisis respectively. The sections are coloured with flashbacks and other padding but still, I felt in the middle of it, zoomed in, privy to Alice’s thought processes as she had them (even though we’re only hearing about them in hindsight). I think it’s this intimacy that creates my disappointment with the final part of the novel – it feels like it zooms out too far. We skip over Charlie’s time as governor and only hear about the problematic first presidential election and the first term challenges in flashback, which makes them feel like distant done-deals: Alice has already processed her thoughts and feelings on them and is presenting them to us rather than let us see the journey. I also felt distanced from Charlie as a character once his actions began to mimic the well-known ones of his real-life counterpart – his charm no longer worked on me and he seemed flatter as a character (in fact, we barely saw him). While their eventual rise to the White House is what makes us interested in them, I think the journey of how Alice & Charlie became the people they are is more intriguing. Aside from wrapping up loose threads, I could almost have done without the final part.

Whether zoomed in or zoomed out, the time periods felt slightly lacking in colour or differentiation – possibly why they were named after her postal address, as if that was the only thing that notably changed. We had retro cars and music in the early 1960s, a hippy Vietnam vet of an ex-boyfriend in the late 1970s, and a tiny reference to cocaine & Bon Jovi in the 1980s but there was little else to set the scene: if their daughter Ella hadn’t gone from non-existent to school girl between the courtship and marital crisis sections, I would have had no real sense of time passing at all. With the narration happening from some future point (is she possibly recalling it all on the plane to Chicago, with everything after that happening “live”?), we hear intelligent mature adult Alice’s thoughts on everything, which further extend the feelings of uniformity and even the difficult bits feel rationalised and rose-tinted. I can’t look back five years without thinking I was an idiot back then (and have no doubts that 39 year old me will think I’m an idiot now), but for all her self-doubt and introspection, Alice doesn’t seem to ask “why on earth did I do that?”.

I think my enjoyment of the first three-quarters of the book is enough to make me say, overall, I liked it, and knowing me, I probably will read it again but it certainly won’t be as regularly on my reading list as “Prep“. I’ve just bought Sittenfeld’s latest book “Sisterland” but I think I’ll have some non-fiction as a palate cleanser in between.

What I’ve been reading (& listening to) in Jan 2014

For a variety of different reasons (none of which are particularly interesting or novel), I’ve decided to start reviewing some of the stuff I read and/or listen to (in the case of audiobooks & lecture series).

I thought I’d do one big review a month, and brief summaries for the other things worth recording – but me being verbose me, that didn’t work out so I’ve split them into their own posts.

I’ve read/started reading a few other things too, and listening to most of two other lecture series, but hopefully I’ll finish those eventually & review them properly rather than listening them all here.

Just read: Britain’s Rottenest Years

I haven’t finalised my list of goals for 2012 but one of them is going to be keeping a track of every book I read.

The first finish of the year was a pop history book: Britain’s Rottenest Years by Derek Wilson. It covers ten separate years from the past 2000 that that make 21st century recession and riots look like fairy stories of the over-enthusiastic media. It was a bit of a random pick-up from Shipley Library – I don’t usually like list books but it sounded more interesting than the others there.

Because it covers ten different time periods/situations, it’s inevitable that some are going to be more interesting to me/the reader than others. I’m usually considerably more interested in post-industrial revolution/20th century history but after reading the excellent Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (a horrible title but essentially just a fab social history of the 14th century) last month, I was more interested in the earlier chapters of Rottenest Years – Boudicca (who I haven’t read about since primary school), the harrowing of the North, the Black Death and the mysterious dry fog of 1783. The latter chapters – 1812, 1936-7 and 1981 – actually left me pretty cold (the latter especially as it felt a little … held back).

As expected, it was an easy read and like all these overview books should do, it’s inspired me to look further into the bits that did interest me. I am glad that I borrowed it from the library rather than bought it though – it’s not the type of thing I’d properly read a second time.

Some books that I possibly like, maybe

A few times over the last couple of weeks I’ve referred to different books being on my “favourite books list” – but yesterday I realised I’ve never sat down and worked out said list so, frankly, anything could be on there.

As a result of that realisation, and in a bid to avoid doing anything actually useful, I decided to make the list of my top 20 favourite books yesterday afternoon. They’re not — by any means — the best 20 books ever written or the most important books to society in general, or anything like that. They’re just books that strike a chord or mean a lot to me for one reason or another, or frankly that I just enjoy and I (have and) will re-read every year or so. I wouldn’t even say it’s definitive as my choice in books depends heavily on mood and context but I can safely say these are books that I probably liked that afternoon, maybe.

(In alphabetical order. I missed out “the” on some of them, not sure why, but I’ll be blowed if I’m renumbering everything now.)

  1. Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson. The only graphic novel on the list – I have a lot of favourite comics but this one makes it onto this list because the characters felt developed enough for a novel.
  2. Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. The first time I picked it up, I stopped on about page 5. The second time, I thought I was a frickin’ fool for putting it down the first time. When someone asked me my favourite book, my snap answer is usually Triffids.
  3. Death of Grass by John Christopher. Like Wyndham, apocalyptica always seems more real when it’s happening in the UK – and when it’s something as possible as a devastating plant virus. Also, Leeds gets nuked.
  4. Drop City by TC Boyle. This book hits all my book-buttons. Love it.
  5. e by Matt Beaumont. Not exactly a literary classic but I love the humour coming from the different points of view. Very fun.
  6. Good Evening Mrs Craven and other stories by Mollie Panter-Downes. There is no word for this book of short stories other than “delightful”. Really evocative of the era.
  7. Happiness ™ by Will Ferguson.
  8. How I Paid for College by Marc Acito. Reminds me of my own not-quire-so-crazy youth. My teenage years didn’t include fraud, blackmail and stealing a buddah but it evokes those heady days all the same.
  9. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. It says in the intro to my book that Dodie read the whole book allowed to her partner to see if each sentence worked by itself – and you can tell. Really well crafted. I also love the characterisations of the animals ;)
  10. Little Children by Tom Perrotta.
  11. Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. Not something I re-read regularly nowadays but a book I used to finish reading then immediately start again. I found it randomly in Southport Library in early 1997 and it introduced me to the idea of geek culture. It inspired me to start my first website a few weeks later :)
  12. Miss Pettrigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. I felt so uplifted when I finished this book. Talk about carpe diem.
  13. Miss Wyoming by Douglas Coupland.
  14. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. I described it on The Really Good Life the other day as: “in a parallel universe somewhere, I am American, went to boarding school and Sittenfeld stole my teenage diary”. So much detail, so accurate neurosis!
  15. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
  16. Scepticism Inc by Bo Fowler. I picked this up completely randomly when I very first moved to Leeds in 2000. An absolute gem of a find – really funny.
  17. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.
  18. The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham. Like Triffids, the first time I read it, I struggled with it. It’s pretty slow/long but it tells such a story – over nearly a couple of decades. Now I’d rate it as highly as Triffids.
  19. The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe.
  20. The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman. Another I can barely read now because it’s so clunky but I read it regularly from about 13-19. I didn’t really get it then but like Microserfs, I think it put me on a path – or showed me the path I’d not realised I was already starting on.

After writing the list, in an effort to avoid doing even more chores, I decided to work out some stats: how many were 50+ years old, how many had been made into films, how many were in which specific genres/themes/styles. I read my numbers out to John and he demanded to know how many fit into multiple categories. A Venn Diagram was surely the answer – and a way to waste even more time! ;)


(There is one error with this one – I Capture the Castle should also be included in “coming of age” as well as “over 50 years old” and “turned into a film” – but even with a lot of shuffling, I couldn’t work out how to fit it in. It’s corrected in the simpler one below.)

Then, on the way to having a curry with the team last night, I was talking to John about the Big Book Venn Diagram and realised that some of the books on the “top 20” list were filler-ish – that I hadn’t had to refine my choices enough and that those “filler” were the ones that would be more likely to change (in fact they did, I made some substitutions during the drawing). So this morning, I cut it down to a “top 10” and drew a new Venn Diagram (although keeping all the same categories). Because it’s simpler, I also tried to make the circles more to scale. Apparently I like books set in other eras ;)


Now I should probably do something slightly more productive ;)

Navigating the fictional but real world

In Liverpool in 1998, I bought a book from a publisher clearance style bookshop called ‘The Breeders Box‘.

It’s set, primarily, in New York, around Greenwich Village – where I have never been – and for the first four, five times I read it, I had to imagine what the area looked like, how the streets fitted together and where things were in relation to each other.

The last time I read it – a couple of years ago – I realised I could look up the area on Google Maps and I could navigate all around, looking at the positions of stuff and blurry satellite photos of the tops of buildings.

This time I read it, I went back onto Google Maps, looked up the area then clicked for the street view – I could see the shapes for all the buildings in the area then plonk my little guy down where, say, the fictional eponymous club was on Spring St and look at the street itself, both sides and moving back and forth along the road.

I wonder how I’ll be able to interact with the real version of the fictional world in another ten years time.

Leeds Reads really bad novels

booksMy current employer, Leeds University Library, is running an event called “Leeds Read at the moment, to culminate with World Book Day on Thursday 2nd March 2006.

Around the various buildings, there are displays and opportunities for people to vote for their favourite book, and there are special “meet the author” type events too. The staff room in my library has a bookswap event going on too, in a take-a-book-leave-a-book way.

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