Archive for November, 2011

I stood in line juggling a stack of books. A really delicious stack of books, I might add. As I waited to check out, I culled a few titles that I didn’t absolutely need and left them on a table for that purpose. I threw an extra book in my pile at that table, justifying it as it wasn’t for me, it was for Mike.

It’s the swan song of Borders, and on Friday I stopped at the store I’ve called “my Borders” since 2005 to pick through the leftovers of a sale that has been going on for a month or more.

I stole glances at the people around me, all of whom juggled similar stacks of books, and all of whom, I’m sure, would call themselves booklovers. Rather than just booklovers, though, we were book vultures. The line between the two blurs when the entire contents of the store are 60 percent off or more.

When I slid my leaning tower of books across the counter, the cashier next to me chirped the total for her customer. “That’s six books for a total of $23.86. What a bargain!” “Nope, you can’t beat that,” the customer said as she reached for her credit card.

I wondered as my cashier scanned my selections if the people around me were buying the books they were buying because they wanted them or because they were on sale. Every book in my tower (with the exception of a stargazing book I’d picked for Mike) had been at least on my radar if not on my Amazon wishlist. Every book I’d selected had been one I’d been meaning to buy and was buying now in one fell swoop rather than buying them piecemeal.

For example, I’ve been mentally salivating over the latest David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, since before it came out in May. I vowed, however, that there was no way I was paying the list price of $37.50. Nope, I could wait — and not just for the paperback. I could wait to luck out at a book fair, one of those great events where book nerds give in to their spouses who have asked them to get rid of some of these books already and come home with the same number of new treasures to fill the space they just cleared out on the shelves. I could wait for the price drop at Amazon Marketplace. And now I didn’t have to. At $15 before tax, I was getting a better price than I possibly could online. So McCullough became the foundation of my pile.

But as the people next to me crowed over their good fortune, I remembered: We are the problem. We, the book vultures, are the reason Borders is closing. We can always find a better bargain somewhere else, and so we do.

On Thursday I visited an independent bookstore in suburban St. Louis. It’s a great store, straight out of the imaginations of all of us kids who dreamed of owning a bookstore some day. Floor to ceiling books. Books stacked on books. Used books. Rare books. New books. Classic books. Books upon books. But the real reason I was in the store was because I’d bought a Groupon worth $25 in merchandise. As I always do when I have a Groupon, I spent more than the Groupon was worth. But as I looked through the inventory for books on my list (looking as always to build my presidential biography collection), I reshelved several, refusing to pay “that much” for a used book. I was happy to be supporting an independent bookstore and pleased to be browsing in someone’s dream, but I still couldn’t bring myself to buy something I didn’t think was a deal.

I’ve recently heard disparaging comments about this frugality being a generational thing, that people of “my generation” feel so entitled that they don’t think they should have to pay full price for anything, even things they love. I was born in 1982, so I hover on the cusp between Generation X and Generation Y — although making the distinction in this case really doesn’t matter, as both generations bear the selfish and entitled mantels. My grandparents come out of the Silent Generation (those who were born in the Depression, too young to serve in WWII, past the typical age of service or protest during Vietnam) and thus are more frugal than I am, refusing to pay more than $12.95 a month for internet service. I don’t think my attempts to get the most for my money or their hesitance to spend money on what they consider luxuries comes from entitlement; I think it comes from knowing what it is to not have anything. I’ve never been Depression-poor, but I certainly have had to be frugal, and have had to find ways to make what little I’ve had stretch.

In this era of austerity, we’re all trying to do more with less, to find ways to have the lifestyle we want on the money we have. In the end, Borders is just one of the stores who has paid for the bargains we’ve craved.

(Originally written September 6, 2011)


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American Wife

I read once that fanfiction is simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing to write. The part that makes it the easiest also makes it the hardest: you have a universe and a set of characters established for you, and while you don’t have to create these elements, you are also stuck operating within the parameters someone else set. As someone who spent an embarrassing amount of time in high school madly scribbling stories about characters I had not created, I can attest to the truth in this observation.

This is also a challenge of writing fiction based on real people and real events — especially when those people are still alive. Curtis Sittenfeld has her work cut out for her in American Wife, a book based on the major events in the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. Mrs. Bush, as one of my colleagues pointed out recently, was a bit of a blank slate during her eight years in the national limelight. What is she actually like? We’re not sure. Thus, it is at once easier and harder to buy Ms. Sittenfeld’s portrayal of the fictional Alice Lindgren Blackwell than it would be of a sketch of a more well-known First Lady, because any baggage we (at least, I) carry about Mrs. Bush is actually that of her husband. Easier because any details Ms. Sittenfeld paints on that blank slate don’t contradict what we already know, because we know very little; harder because we know so few things, there’s very little framework to build on.

I can’t imagine anyone writing fiction from the perspective of Hillary Rodham Clinton or of Michelle Obama, and it’s not just because they’re married to Democrats, or because their stories are less interesting than Mrs. Bush’s. No, I simply can’t imagine anyone feeling the freedom to step into Mrs. Clinton’s or Mrs. Obama’s minds, as Mrs. Clinton’s and Mrs. Obama’s approach to being First Lady seems much more public than that of Mrs. Bush. This is not a criticism of Mrs. Bush — the role of First Lady is one to play as one sees it — but rather an observation that she left a lot more blanks to fill than either Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Obama. I can accept the idea of fiction about Mrs. Bush much more readily, as my image of her in my mind is much more shadowy than the fuller characters I see of Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Obama. I can’t call foul on Ms. Sittenfeld’s characterization as I might a characterization of Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Obama, because I don’t feel that I know Mrs. Bush well enough to see where the real person fades and the fictional fills in.

As the book is mostly about Alice Blackwell, it hangs on her being a compelling character, and I don’t feel that she is. Even with the liberties Ms. Sittenfeld was able to take, the restrictions of the real characters don’t make this extremely interesting reading. I don’t think this book would stand on its own if it weren’t based on the Bushes, and at the same time, the fact that it is based on the Bushes isn’t enough to drive it forward. Specifically, Mrs. Blackwell is so convinced of her own ordinariness and her own reservedness that she can’t quite convince us that she is worth spending over 500 pages with.

Anyone reading this looking for insight into the relationship between the real George and Laura Bush based on the fictional Charlie and Alice Blackwell is going to have a hard time as well, as Ms. Sittenfeld never quite convinces me what it is that Alice sees in Charlie. Truly, one of the hardest things in the world is trying to figure out what makes other people’s relationships tick, but it is generally easier in fiction than in real life. Not in the case of Charlie and Alice Blackwell — Ms. Sittenfeld paints a man who is so difficult to take seriously that you wonder if she was still trying to figure the attraction out herself.

Perhaps it is in part the amount of time I spend reading about actual accounts of presidents and first ladies that the fictional bothers me. Anyone who checks in on this blog from time to time will see that I spend most of my time complaining about the problems of reading fiction that is based on someone or something real, and you, like I, probably wonder why I keep reading it. I think I keep hoping that fiction will allow me to understand a more personal aspect of things that are real (as fiction is supposed to), and all it does is make me long for the solid certainty I feel when I read good non-fiction. My next goal is to read Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History by Kati Marton, and maybe that book will give me what I’m looking for.

(Originally written August 20, 2011)

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