Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Former First Bookworm

Spoken from the Heart

I approached Laura Bush's memoir like I was going on a treasure hunt.  She may be a former president's wife, but her real identity is Super Bookworm.  She's one of us.  This is the person who started the Texas Book Festival and the National Book Festival.   While she was First Bookworm, I mean, First Lady, if she felt like having a literature symposium, she went ahead and organized one.  YES! In Asia, when you're giving someone big big respect, you kneel down and place your forehead against the floor.  It's going to be so difficult to write my review of Spoken from the Heart in that position, but here goes.

I raced through the first part of this memoir.  Laura Bush's reminiscences of her life as an only child in Midland, Texas are just so extremely readable.   Even though she gives credit to whom I suppose is a ghostwriter in her acknowledgments and the book is called Spoken from the Heart, she's writerly right down to her toes.  And no wonder.  The Former First Bookworm had a mother who loved reading:

"When I came through the door in the afternoon, I was greeted by the soft rustle of book pages and my mother, her feet propped up, book open on her lap. My mother loved to read.  Her canon ranged from the traditional to the eclectic, writers like John Marquand and Somerset Maugham.  She loved Willa Cather, especially Death Comes for the Archbishop.  She read eagerly about the Southwest; it didn't matter whether the story was set in far West Texas or New Mexico or Arizona.  She read books about anthropology, native peoples, and early explorers.  She delved into naturalists like Loren Eiseley.  And she read to me, her voice weaving its spells of character, plot and  place, until I too yearned to decipher the fine black letters printed on the page."

Most of their books came from the Midland County Public Library, which was located in the basement of the county courthouse.  This location was interesting to young Laura, since hardly any houses or buildings in Midland had basements or stairs.  Mrs. Welch started her daughter out on Golden Books then they read Little Women when Laura was seven.  "The curtain on my imagination lifted," LB writes.  Once she could read, LB read Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew.  She particularly loved Nancy Drew:  "Like me, Nancy was an only child making her way in the world."

In high school, she was "always in Honors English" and avidly read the books in the curriculum like Jane Eyre, Ethan Frome, and Silas Marner.   I was delighted to read that she pulled the well-known bookworm trick of propping up her book in math or science and hiding her latest read behind it.  "In one case," LB writes, "it was Lady Chatterley's Lover, which for 1963 Midland was quite risque."

In college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, she took a course in Children's Literature, and when she graduated, she became an elementary school teacher.  Her favorite part of the day was story hour.  After a year or so of teaching, she applied to library school at the University of Texas in Austin.  She writes about some of the treasures in the Harry Ransom Center:  "...rare manuscripts from Shakespeare's First Folio, manuscripts by the Bronte sisters and John Keats and the page proofs from James Joyce's Ulysses.  I was learning about the conservation of books in a place with some of the most beautiful pieces of literature in the world."  When she graduated, she worked first in a public library, then as a school librarian where "each class was my much-loved story hour."

I should discuss other things I liked about the book, shouldn't I?  But I can't help being delighted that references to reading and books and authors are woven into her life with such great frequency.  Something tells me that there could have been more, but there were editors prodding her to move it along.  A lot of the book, especially the White House years, seems dutifully rendered, although she's got a nice touch with historical tidbits.  She doesn't seem to care very much for the political aspects of her life.  One might read that as just plain avoidance of touching on controversial issues, but truly, it's just not what floats her boat.

One of her disappointments as First Bookworm was in early 2003, when she scheduled a poetry symposium at the White House featuring the works of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes.  One of the invited poets refused to attend and urged the other poets to turn the event into an antiwar protest.  LB postponed the symposium and it was never rescheduled:  "I had not selected the poets on the basis of politics, nor had the guest list been political.  I wondered what victory the invitees thought they had won by keeping the East Room dark and silencing some of the nation's most eloquent writers."  When I read that, I let out an involuntary groan of disappointment.

Oddly enough, I didn't seen any mention of American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, which seems to be based on Laura Bush.  I can't help wondering if she read it.

Since I live in South Korea, I feel compelled to mention the South Korean anecdote.  The Bushes had received intelligence that the president of South Korea loved bowling, (LB doesn't say if it was president Kim, Roh or Lee, but it was probably Kim Dae-Jung) so for a present, they gave him a customized bowling ball but when he opened it, he had no idea what it was.  Awkward!

Spoken from the Heart is a lot like Laura Bush herself: calm, graceful, sensitive, graceful and intelligent.  It's also not overly long, like a lot of recent political memoirs.  Although I've only touched on Laura Bush the reader, there's a lot more to her.  I don't suppose she ever will, but it would be so great if she did a memoir based solely on her reading life.  Meanwhile, this one is definitely worth your time.


Sam said...

Great review of a book by one of my favorite people...for exactly the reasons you listed. Starting two major book festivals, one at the national level and one at the state level, is something to be proud of. I imagine that is more than most First Ladies will achieve in a truly meaningful way. The woman knows her heart and has the courage to follow it. Perhaps, one day, her husband will have his image restored - when it is possible for the media to treat him objectively a few decades from now.

Bybee said...

She spoke so eloquently and so well of her husband that I started to become rather fond of him myself!

raidergirl3 said...

I read American Wife and although I'm sure she wouldn't have liked it, it made me really like her. I thought her character came through, and the fact that she is married to George after all these years puts him in good stead with me - she seems wise, and if he stuck with her, that is smart on his part.

Great review! I'm not even American, but I could see reading this book.

Tami said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I have never been much of a memoir fan, but lately I'm finding a new interest in them. This one sounds wonderful with all the bookish references.

jenclair said...

I love memoirs, and memoirs about reading and literature add another favorite dimension!

Thanks for a great review.

Carrie#K said...

I love that she's so bookish.