Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Really Good Books About First Ladies: Part One

First ladies and their foreign equivalents, naturally. Oh, and first daughters, because Alice Roosevelt Longworth is super-compelling, no? Yes. How can there be two parts? There can. Did you ever read Gloria Steinem's essay on going to her reunion at Smith? She mentioned that an interviewer said 'isn't it fascinating that the nation's top women went to Smith?' and Steinem asked who, and the interviewer said 'Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan,' and Steinem went totally postal and said IS GERALDINE FERRARO'S HUSBAND ONE OF OUR NATION'S "TOP MEN"? CHECK YOURSELF!

But they're so interesting!

American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld – Me, I thought this book should have been way more successful. I loved it! I also loved Prep, which is a Real, Bonafide Bildungsroman. But, American Wife, guys! If you read one book based on a thinly fictionalized Laura Bush this year...etc. Sittenfeld is incredibly talented. I didn't read the second one, but I always give authors a pass on their second book (Zadie Smith say what?) because I think we put too much pressure on people to turn that shit around. GOD, write a book and then take some time to paint some pottery and let people say nice things about the first one. Don't rush it! Then write a damn fine third book (Zadie Smith say what?) and move on with your life.

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser – Ohhhh, so great. And surprisingly not a letdown after a childhood of assuming that The Queen's Confession was totally legit, and that Victoria Holt was just the name of Marie's translator. Although, honestly, I guess it's better to have a great life and then have a super-crummy last year of it than to live in crushing rural poverty for approximately the same amount of time and then die of tuberculosis or something, right?

Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker, Stacy A. Cordery – I'm going to level with you here. It really doesn't matter which book you read about Alice. You can't screw up this kind of subject matter. The Roosevelt Women is great too. Do you KNOW about Alice? Alice was Larger Than Life. Sexual intrigue! Cuckolding! Gossip! Scandal! Banned from White House functions by more than one administration!

Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, Jean Harvey Baker – I know! You're thinking, 'I could write that book, and call it Bitch Was Crazy.' There is WAY more than that going on, and Baker will tell you about it. Seriously, pour one out for Mary Lincoln. She did not have an easy time of it. At least this all went down prior to The Real Housewives of DC. Let's take a moment to discuss how little we'd like to be married to the President. Doesn't it look awful? Not, like, coal mining awful, obviously, but still pretty bad. Watch Michelle grit her teeth. Watch Hillary having to submit a stupid cookie recipe to Good Housekeeping. ARE YOU SERIOUS? SHE WENT TO YALE LAW. MAKE HER SOME GODDAMN COOKIES. How is that even a thing?

Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Greg Lawrence – I absolutely loathe the Kennedys. And I come by it extremely un-naturally, because my family is Irish Catholic and my grandparents had framed pictures of JFK all over the house next to the goriest crucifixes that money can buy. But the man was a puppet, obviously, being jerked around by Joe Sr, the worst person ever. Ever. MOVING ON, I always thought Jackie was okay. I liked that she decided to thumb her nose at the world by marrying Ari, and I especially liked her second act as an editor, which she was apparently very good at. This book is better than the OTHER book that came out about Jackie-as-a-reader, and there are loads of fasccccinating little anecdotes. Enjoy!


One of you needs to write the definitive biography of Winston Churchill's mother Jennie. I've read all of them, and we're not quite there yet. Hop to it!

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The Lady of Shalott

Aghghghg, American Wife! I want to read that so much but I hated, hated, hated Prep SO much it soured me on Sittenfield for a while. But I really want to read it!

Or, I'll just read that book on Marie Antoinette, and then the one on Mary Lincoln. Why has no one written a successful, good fiction novel about Mary Lincoln yet? Every one is just so....meh and disappointing on every level! And then I get so frustrated and HER LIFE WAS SO DRAMATIC, YOU GUYS, IT DESERVES BETTER STORIES.

Anyway, then I'm going to go reread The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., and its two sequels, fiction about Napoleon's wife.


@The Lady of Shalott Why did you hate Prep? I feel so attached to that book!


@Decca @The Lady of Shallott I didn't like Prep either, and don't really get the universal praise for it. I think she wrote about high school insecurity in a realistic, nuanced way, and addressed class relatively well, but it was really slow-moving.

And I had a hard time empathizing with the protagonist (not that I have to in order to enjoy a book), I just felt like I was supposed to like her and couldn't muster it up.


@The Lady of Shalott I was just sort of "Meh" about it. Like it was fine and entertaining on about the same level as Grey's Anatomy, and later when I dated a boy who had a wealthy family and went to those sorts of schools, it helped me figure out what was going on.

You know what you should read? The Harding Affair. Warren G Harding, Affair to Remember with a lady who turned out to be a WW1 German Spy, and they included all his ahhhhhhhmazing love letters. Dudes don't write that kind of stuff anymore, but oh jesus. At least one did. /swoon


@The Lady of Shalott
I am *so* glad I'm not the only one.

I didn't hate it, per se, but the ending just sort of petered out? And the protagonist was not particularly likable? Not that they have to be, but it helps a bit.

Trotter Roller@twitter

@The Lady of Shalott Good lord I just couldn't stand Prep either. In what world am I supposed to like a protagonist who [SPOILER ALERT] is an asshole to her family, alienates people around her, lets herself get used, and after all that LITERALLY LEARNS NOTHING AND DOES NOT CHANGE.

However, I really really want to read American Wife because it was just the character in Prep I couldn't stand. The actual writing was wonderful.


@travelmugs I completely loved Prep, and sort of felt like the whole point was that we WEREN'T supposed to like the protag. She was like, an exaggerated completely terrible version of ourselves as teenagers.


@The Lady of Shalott I HATED Prep (only, I think, because I read it during my Freshman year of college and it was a liiiiitle ah, close to home) but LOVED American Wife so give it a try! is my advice.


@missvancity This! I think the whole point is to find her totally relatable and super detestable. Which made me super uncomfortable and made me go back and reevaluate some of my feelings about being a teen and kind of eventually forced me to grow up a little. What more can you ask from a coming of age novel?


@The Lady of Shalott HATED Prep, and also didn't love American Wife. I was like "This Curtis is such a woman hater!!" and then realized she WAS a woman! YIKES.


I guess I'm the only person who really likes Lee. It's true that the novel highlights her worst moments. But haven't we all had phases like that? I really don't think she alienates those around her though. I reread it pretty frequently and the older I get, the more I do wish she were nicer to her family, but it's so easy to say that as an adult when you yourself are more mature. I also don't think she literally learns nothing from her experiences, at all. Remember, the book is written from the perspective of adult Lee, and given the unflattering (in the brutally honest sense) portrayal of her in high school, it seems to me that the reader has to conclude that she did get a sense of perspective on her high school experience. It's subtle, but that's something I took away from it.

It's definitely one of the most realistic books I've ever read which is huge points in and of itself, to me.


Nicole, can you do a whole Really Good Bildungsroman column?


@Gertrude Oh, seconded!

Speaking of, you know what I read recently and loooooved: "The Miseducation of Cameron Post." It's about a teenage lesbian growing up in rural Montana who gets sent to a de-gay-ifying camp. Or, as the author put it in a Slate interview I read, it's a "coming of gayge novel."


@dahlface I just read that last week! I... had a very complicated reaction to it, but I think Emily M. Danforth is a beautiful writer. The final scene was so very touching. I do some volunteer work with young people, I'm always thrusting books upon them because books saved me when I was going through my hardest times, and I think I would recommend it for almost all of them, except those struggling with the loss of a family member. I did not feel the way Danforth wrote Cameron's grief rang true. I thought the "coming of gayge" aspect of it was so sensitive, and honest, and affecting, but her response (and the response of everyone around her) to the death of her parents irked me. What do you think? Am I allowing my bias to distort my judgment?


@Gertrude And can the the Robertson Davies "Cornish Trilogy" be in it? Because I love that series a whole lot, particularly the Bildungsroman part.


@dahlface Omg, I LOVED that book. I loved it so much that I didn't shut up about it for a week after I read it.


Aw man, Curtis Sittenfeld! I liked Prep way more than I really wanted to. A while back she did a rather snotty review of a chick lit book that seemed pretty lip-curling at the whole idea of chick lit, which chafes my hide and, while I try to avoid it, poisons my perception of her novels somewhat. (I really don't think it's productive to dismiss an entire genre as worthless, especially since it tends to get broken down to two sides: "valuable, weighty literature" and "that fluffy genre bunk.") On the other hand, I really really did like Prep, so.


@frigwiggin Sitteneld is a very particular type of author who I do not like as a rule but I like her. She had a really great interview on Slate a while back with the woman who wrote The Miseducation of Cameron Post.


@frigwiggin in college my professor was married to Curtis. And I only realized it because it was when American Wife came out, and I was reading her review in The New York Times where they mentioned him. He was by far my favorite professor, and taught a class on the 2008 election (while it was happening). So I guess what I'm saying is, I have always like Curtis because her husband was pretty awesome (and Prep was alright?).


@frigwiggin I kind of loathe Curtis Sittenfeld as a person, because she's seemed terrible in every interview I've read with her, and I wanted to punch things at that chick lit snottiness. That said, I liked Prep a lot, and I LOVED American Wife.


@theepiccek I would like that interview so much better if it were done by someone who was not pals with the author. Hate that.


Antonia Fraser! Love her stand alone biographies, but did not like Warrior Queens and could not get through the book about the Sun King's mistresses. Too many generalizations. Maybe one person at a time is best? Maybe it's just me.

If I just read the super long but super wonderful Team of Rivals do I have to read that book about Mary Todd because when discussed by Goodwin it was all "Mysticism was very popular at the time and the first lady's interest was in no way out of the ordinary for a women of her class who had lost a child."?

I live and work in DC and Jackie used to work (as an editor) in my building!


ahhhh I love American Wife. I love Cutis Sittenfeld I love this post. I LOVE EVERYONE IN THIS BAR.


Joe Sr. may have been the worst person EVER, but he had to have at least one redeeming quality, else why would Dietrich have bothered?

I read an Eleanor Roosevelt bio a while back in which Alice R.L. was mentioned at least in passing and she sounded fascinating, so I'm there!

Nicole Cliffe

@Bittersweet I'm guessing it was 'founded RKO and owned a tremendous number of movie theaters.'


@Bittersweet Alice was fascinating, but not entirely kind to Eleanor, who is one of the greatest humans of all time.
Still, her I-don't-give-a-crap attitude was mostly a delight.


Also, because I try to have a Mitford anecdote for every occasion - the Mitfords mother once met Lady Bird Johnson at a dinner party and was later heard to remark "I looked her up in Debretts but couldn't find any Bird Johnsons...".


@Decca NO WAY.


@Decca I have always wondered if your Hairpin Name was a Mitford reference. Now I know. Mmmmmmmmmitford. Sigh.


@Decca There's also a fun scene in Deborah's latest memoir about when Lady Bird and one of the daughters visited Chatsworth.


@Decca More Mitford trivia: They were related to Winston Churchill!


I loved American Wife. The book was so much better than the recognition it received.


I read Prep in high school and identified SO MUCH with the main character. I tried to reread it a few years ago but it felt like I was reading my high school diary, which felt awkward and cringe-inducing, so I stopped.

I finished "American Wife" a few weeks ago and.... mixed feelings.

***~~ SPOILER ALERT, MAYBE??***~~~

I really, really liked Alice righhhhhtttt until she met/married Charlie. He was so immature and annoying! His obnoxious family! (That weird sexual poem her brother in law recited about her the first time she met the Blackwells!) I guess I understood her initial attraction to Charlie but not why she would actually marry/stay with him. He was lazy and didn't really work, whereas Alice was well-educated and took great value in her job. His Republican ideals were way different from Alice's liberal ones. He was an extroverted and immature wild child, whereas Alice was introverted and serious. I could see them having a wild fling, but a lifelong marriage?? Plus he got TOTALLY insufferable when he turned into a born-again Christian. I felt like the last part of the book, where Alice does that huge monologue after she's already first lady, was Sittenfeld's weird way of explaining why Alice stayed with Charlie.

JoAnn, Sidewalk Chic@twitter

@bonnbee I feel the same way! Alice was so awesome in the first 2/3rds of the book -- she was intelligent, loved her job and was able to function as a pretty normal adult despite the tragedies she went through as a teenager. Then she meets Charlie, all sly smiles and good times, and she marries him even though they have nothing in common. I felt like Sittenfeld kind of petered out with the last third of the book -- it didn't feel like there was quite a complete ending with it...


@bonnbee I totally felt the same way. Alice was awesome and i couldn't understand the appeal. And I did love the book until the last 1/3 when I just couldn't take it.


Really Good Musicals About First Wives: Evita

Really Good Concept Albums About First Wives: "Here Lies Love" by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, about Imelda Marcos

Really Good Letters Between First Man And Wife: the collected correspondance of John and Abigail Adams

Really Good Victorian Prime Minister's wife I most want to hang out with: Mary Anne Disraeli always seemed very witty and wild.


@Decca First Lady With Really Good Upper Arms To Die For: Michelle Obama


@Decca Oh, yeah-- John and Abigal Adams were the sauce. Particularly Mrs. Adams. She was the saucy sauce.

John was a lucky dude.



I got on a huge kick in college reading as many First Lady biographies as I could. My favorites were Dearest Friend: A Biography of Abigail Adams by Lynne Withey and First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War by Joan Cashin.

I still need to get my hands on a biography of Lemonade Lucy.


There used to be a Smith shirt - probably not official college merchandise - with Barbara and Nancy and "There's got to be a better way to get a Smithie to the White House" on it.

Really Good Cheesy Mysteries Featuring (Future) First Ladies as Sleuths: Barbara Hamilton's Abigail Adams series. I find these immensely entertaining even though they are probably not objectively that great. "The Ninth Daughter," "A Marked Man" and "Sup with the Devil."


@anachronistique Ohh, they probably mean "sup" as in "dine," huh? I sat here for a minute trying to parse the concept of a book with 'Sup as part of the title. 'Sup with the Devil, y'all??


Antonia Fraser is okay, but I *love* Alison Weir (leaving aside her Philippa Gregory novels, ikes). Eleanor of Aquitaine, Kathryn Swynford, Isabella the She-Wolf, Margaret Beaufort: I love them all.


You have to read The Man of My Dreams!!!! Sittenfeld does not disappoint. It is amazing. I loved it more than Prep. It's every feeling you've ever had about unrequited love. Read it. Read it now!


@lobsterhug Also, Sittenfeld looks disturbingly like my little sister.


God, I looooved Prep. I went to one of those schools and it is so accurate. Wasn't crazy about The Man of My Dreams. American Wife is excellent.

Thanks for the recommendations, I am super into biographies and nonfiction right now.

Emily Ansara Baines@facebook

I am so, so excited that there are other people out there who appreciate a childhood based on loving The Queen's Confession. Victoria Holt/pre-teenhood for the win!

Regina Phalange

Oh, man! I loved "Prep," and I thought "American Wife" was well-written when I first read it a few years ago...but I was actually thinking about it the other day, and it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. (Plot points ahead.)
I mean, writing about a fictionalized version of the horrific accident, and then tying in a scandalous sex scene/abortion as consequences of the grief from the accident? That just felt really off-side and exploitative to me.

Springtime for Voldemort

The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette is really good for what the pamphlets were saying about her. It's not really a biography, so much as how the people of the time saw her (the big hair, the vanity, the incest/lesbianism ('scuse me, tribadism...)/orgies...) And then some of the actual pamphlets in the back.


I LOVED "Marie Antoinette: The Journey". Mostly I am a fiction girl but I spent a week unable to put it down, and it was in my first month of undergrad, so, yeah, I am a fan.


@synecdoche I loved it too. I spent most of the book thinking, "I really hope she turns this situation around and survives it!"


Can I recommend Désiree by Annemarie Selinko? I'm going to recommend it anyway, http://www.historyandwomen.com/2010/11/desiree-by-annemarie-selinko.html

It's a fictionalised account of the amazing life of the woman Bonaparte was going to marry before he met Josephine and it is amazeballs.

sudden but inevitable betrayal

@cat1788 Ohhhhh shit yeah you can. Just requested it from the library!


@sudden but inevitable betrayal I really hope you enjoy it, it's one of my absolute favourite books ever!


I really enjoyed American Wife (way more than I thought I would), and also enjoyed Jackie as Editor! I just put the one about Alice Roosevelt onto my Goodreads list. One of my favorite biographies of all time is "A Woman In Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton" by Carl Bernstein. Really well written, interesting, and captivating.


Nancy Milford, of Savage Beauty and Zelda fame, is working on a book on Rose Kennedy. Not a first lady exactly, but I'm sure it's going to be really really really great.


I totally stopped watching any interviews with authors. They (almost) all come off bad in public, particularly those I enjoy reading. I have to watch my blood pressure - reading is supposed to calm my nerves. I will absolutely have to read about Alice Roosevelt - had never heard of her.


Why isn't there a feature that lets me automatically add things to my goodreads??? blah! I'm so lazy!


@Jade haha seriously! this feature should come with a link to amazon.com ebooks or what have you.

great advertising initiative!

Jane Err

@Jade There really needs to be a Hairpin Goodreads club. No one I know is on there! I bet so many 'pinners are on there!

In fact!! Here's the link to my brand-new account. . .anyone who wants should friend me, and let's get this ball rolling.


Nicole, I just wanted to let you know that I've been wondering what I will read on vacation in 2 weeks (it's a "relax at the lake with my family" vacation, so lots of material is needed). Last night I just sat at the library going through all of your "really good books" lists reserving l ike crazy. I am going to read about so many real/fake murders!


YEAH WTF MAKE HILLARY THE DAMN COOKIES, SHE'S THE FREAKING SECRETARY OF STATE! Having her submit a recipe. As if she has the time. Pah.

I would NEVER want to be the first lady, seriously never ever. In fact I can say with 100% certainty that I wouldn't even want to be like the second cousin of someone who runs for president, let alone actually in that house.

I respect immensely the people that go for it and do the whole politics thing, but there is no way I'm subjecting myself to that lifestyle ever in a million years. O_o


@Scandyhoovian Truly, it sounds awful. I don't know what's worse: watching independent-minded, successful women like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama have to transform themselves temporarily into cookie-baking cliches or realizing that women like Barbara Bush and Laura Bush made that transformation and then lived it FOREVER.


Oh Nicole, do I have a book for you! Check out "The Private Passion of Jackie Kennedy Onassis: Portrait of a Rider" by Vicky Moon. I have a LOT of Jackie books, and this is my favorite.

Jane Err

So, the only Zadie Smith book I ever tried to read, I hated. Only now did I think "I bet that was her second book."

It was. I'll try another one now.


One of my all-time "Wish I could've been..." things is that I totally wish I could've been a Roosevelt. What a fucking fascinating family. Also, you should totally pop over to Alice's Wikipedia page and check out her photos. Lady be stylin'!


@tessamae Gibson girl! OH MY GOD, she was gorgeous. I feel so bad for Alice, though. After her mother died, Teddy refused to talk about her, and her stepmother didn't particularly like her or her mother.


@meetapossum I KNOW! Her stepmother was apparently quite beastly to her, but of course Alice being Alice ended up thanking her for being so awful to her b/c it helped make her into the kick-as lady she was. The stuff about when she had polio and the stepmother would make her walk in the painful leg braces until she broke down sobbing and weeping??? SWEET JESUS. But then Alice totally credits her with keeping her from becoming crippled. That is some STRENGTH, YO.


I read American Wife years ago and really enjoyed it, but a rather unnerving side effect is that it will get in your brain and blur fact and fiction when it comes to Laura and George. (Or was that just me?)


I know we're talking about books here, but I will never tire of Abigail Bartlet as my favorite, fictional first lady. "Privateers" is one of the best episodes from the West Wing's tenure.

Also, can someone please find a link to that Gloria Steinem essay? I'm on a serious Smith College kick. Thnx.

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