Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday Reads: Maria Semple's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?"

Satire has always been, to me, a proletarian endeavor. By which I mean that specific type of lampooning is best directed at the upper classes in order to bring the upper class down a notch. The fun made at the expense of the lower classes can usually be called (at best) clowning. When, in Shakepeare's Twelfth Night, the clowns, Sirs Toby and Andrew, make mockery the aspirations (and transgressions) of the play's malcontent, Malvolio, the satire is at Malvolio's belief he is more than a servant. Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," as every college freshman knows, takes a bite (pun intended) at the rhetoric wealthy lawmakers of 17th century England expound on the solution to Irish poverty. P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh (who share the same crate at Wallace Books) made a living mocking the upper classes; Wodehouse a little more lovingly than Waugh, who made sure to point out that the post-war British upper class had no more money than the lower. The idea is to make the upper class as foolish as us, perhaps (let's hope) even more.
Accessories not included. 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? follows in this tradition, with an irresistible twist. The novel is epistolary, with some small narration from Bee Branch, thirteen-year-old daughter of Elgie and Bernadette Branch. Emails, report cards, traffic incident reports, alerts, all go into telling the story of a mother who is at once fearless and intelligent, willful and broken.

What we gather from this (mostly electronic) ephemera, is the story of Bernadette Fox, a reclusive, antisocial mother, who twenty years ago was a brilliant and ambitious architect. A disaster, which has mostly to do with Bernadette's overconfidence (equal parts hilarious and maddening), leads her to leave the architectural life and move with her husband Elgie from L.A. to Seattle, buy a dilapidated mansion, and after several attempts get pregnant and have a daughter, before descending into an antisocial and bitter life. Surrounded by what Bernadette calls "gnats," native Seattle-ites whose outdoorsy, Subaru driving, nosy ways Bernadette cannot stand, her one consolation is her daughter, Balakrishna. Bee is a brilliant young girl waiting to hear from an acceptance to the boarding school her mother went to, a dream misinterpreted by the "gnats" as her mother's desire, not Bee's. Upon the very first page we learn that Bernadette has disappeared, and although her husband Elgie knows, he refuses to talk about it to Bee, who begins discerning why. The novel is that discernment. It is equal parts laugh out loud funny and bitterly sad.

The first ingredient for satire is that the satirized must be unaware of their absurdity, and if we are honest with ourselves (something the subject of satire can never be, in real life or in art), we will realize that an email is a great starting point. In an email, rhetorical structure and exposition make way for the Ego, and expose us to ridicule. In Where'd You Go, Bernadette, the characters are woefully unaware at how exposed they are, which is exactly where author Maria Semple (who wrote for, among other shows, Arrested Development) needs them to be. Perhaps the best subject is Bernadette's neighbor, Aubrey, a mother at the same private school Bee attends; her correspondences, emails between her friend, emails back and forth from her landscaper, even school notices after an "incident" with her foot and the wheel of Bernadette's car, are all marvelously biting just because Aubrey is so very unaware at how absurd her emails are to any reader other than the intended. But although Aubrey was my personal favorite, the other characters, Bernadette included, don't fare much better. The only correspondence that seems mostly bewildered at the indignity of the emails is Bernadette's agent, an obscure and capable woman who arranges all of Bernadette's appointments, travel itineraries, reserves tables for the Branch family at Thanksgiving, and (of course) lives in India.

At the shop, the used copies of this book have been trickling in, and I picked it up in a lull to get a sense of it. Eighty pages later, I realized I had read eighty delightful pages and thought I should get back to work. It is a trap at a bookstore -- "falling down a rabbit hole" is what I call it. I fell into the novel with great good humor and it was hard to pull myself back. Do yourself a favor: fall into it as well.

~ James, February 2014

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

5 Reasons Why You Should Read "The Catcher in the Rye" in February

My beat-up copy.
Every February since I was fifteen, I have made it a tradition to read J.D. Salinger's short novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the story about prep-school teenager Holden Caulfield, whose angsty misadventures in post-WWII New York City has been the balm to many a self-pitying teenager for generations. Anyone who has read of Holden's odyssey is on one side or the other: either Holden is a sensitive, misunderstood and confused hero of the postmodern world; or he is a sad, pathetic, annoying angry crybaby. 

Obviously, I fall into the former camp. As the half decade of reading The Catcher in the Rye have moved to a decade to a decade-and-a-half, every February I look forward to my reunion with that confused kid, who always manages to resemble me when I was at sixteen, and to some degree how I am now. New questions arise in my latest reading of the book -- new opinions, new ground on which to stand on. As I read of Holden I gain a sense of the progress (or decline) of my own maturity. 

This year I wondered: why February? Why do I feel the need to return to Holden's travails at this time of year? And, does the time of year affect your reading of The Catcher in the Rye? If you first read the book in July, when you could be swimming instead, wouldn't you find Holden just a little irritating? Perhaps February is the best time to read this wonderful book, and here are 5 reasons why:

Friday, February 7, 2014

Isle Of Youth - Stories

In preparation for my spring-term fiction workshop I read Laura Van Den Berg's The Isle of Youth. She's leading the class and I always like to read my instructors beforehand. It's a sometimes scary prospect. I find myself wondering, what if I hate it? Or, what if I like it too much and their style creeps into my own work? These are the dangers writing students face--pretty good problems to have, if you're fortunate enough to choose your own. The payoff is an understanding of the writer's concerns and knowledge of where they're coming from, both of which are very helpful in digesting feedback, and a good foundation for dialogue between teacher and student. Of course, I do find it a little odd whenever an instructor assigns their own work, which seems to suggest, you better like it... or else!

Perilous danger aside, I found these stories to make up a great and cohesive collection, setting up shop at a strange intersection between Munro, Chandler, and Murakami. Natalie Serber, who some of you might see around the shop now and then, wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "Wonder and mystery are recurring motifs. The women here are one step ahead of disaster or one step behind it, and either way they are eager to discover what’s next . . . Van den Berg, in this wonderful collection, never lets us turn away." This is 100% on the money.

In my favorite story in the collection, "Opa-Locka," two sisters start working as private detectives, trailing a man whose wife thinks he's cheating on him, boilerplate detective stuff but from there things take a odd, and then grim, turn. The Isle of Youth features, among other things, relationships that have faltered, mysteries gone unsolved, and in the end, magic that has been exposed for what it is: a cheap parlor trick to distract you while your pocket is picked, which is something we've all encountered in one form or another, a part of what it means to grow older.