Wednesday, September 24, 2014

WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple

This is what is known as an epistolary novel, but such an adjective sounds way too serious for this book.  It’s a manic whirlwind of hilarious emails, blog posts, letters, teenage musings, transcripts of conversations, medical bills, police reports—you name it.  Bernadette is a former Los Angeles architect who specialized in the use of local building materials.  Now she’s in Seattle—a city she detests and mercilessly skewers—and has abandoned her career for reasons to be revealed later in the book.  Her husband Elgin is a rising star at Microsoft, heading up Bill Gates’ favorite project.  Their daughter Bee has requested a trip to Antarctica as a reward for her topnotch academic performance.  When something seems too good to be true, like this perfect family or a virtual assistant who charges 75 cents an hour, trouble must be lurking just around the corner.  Then when nextdoor neighbor Audrey Griffin demands that Bernadette cut back her infringing blackberry vines, Bernadette complies, but a domino effect of chaos and hilarity ensues.  Audrey is so preoccupied with making the perfect impression that she’s oblivious to her son’s misdeeds. Bernadette, on the other hand, is borderline reclusive and delightfully wacky.  She is the enigmatic force that drives this story, and we finally get a close-up glimpse of her when we learn the details of her architectural accomplishments.  Her family’s wheels come off when Elgin becomes a little too close to his administrative assistant and begins questioning whether Bernadette’s antics are an indication of a mental breakdown.  Common sense is apparently not his forte, nor Bernadette’s either, for that matter, and thus Bee, wise beyond her years, has to step in to restore order.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver

Dellarobia is on her way to a hunting cabin to meet the telephone man for a tryst, when she encounters an astonishing scene in the Appalachian mountains.  The trees appear to be covered in flames, but there’s obviously no fire.  This vision, which is really hordes of monarch butterflies, gives her pause to rethink her plans.  She turns back to her unhappy life with a passive husband and two small children on a sheep farm owned by her in-laws.  Mother-in-law Hester is a taciturn woman who seems chilly toward her own grandchildren and downright hostile toward Dellarobia.  Near the end of the book we find that she has her reasons for such a dismal outlook on life, but, in the meantime, the butterflies become a national sensation.  Ovid Byron, a scientist/professor from Arizona, sweeps in with a few assistants to try to determine why the butterflies have chosen to roost in Tennessee, where the winter cold will surely kill them and possibly annihilate the entire species.  The author uses this fictional phenomenon for two purposes.  First, Ovid becomes a vehicle for educating the locals about global warming, which they’ve heard of but don’t believe in.  The second purpose is that of providing a metaphor for opening up the outside world to Dellarobia and her young son Preston.  It’s a minor miracle how the author touches on so many themes in this book.  Dellarobia bristles at the condescending attitude held by both the scientific community and the press toward her neighbors, but she’s a quick study and soon grasps the gravity of the situation for the butterflies, as a microcosm of a planet whose ecosystems have gone awry.  Kingsolver’s prose is luscious, never preachy, and the dialog is crisp and witty.  An outsider handing out pamphlets, admonishing people to reduce their carbon footprint, gets a rude awakening when he recites his list of suggestions to Dellarobia.  She’s never been in a plane, has never bought bottled water, and hasn’t eaten in a restaurant in two years, demonstrating that her contribution to the problem is meager in comparison to that of urban dwellers.  Despite its weighty topic, this novel has a lot of heart and humor, and I embraced everything about it with delight.

Monday, September 15, 2014

PIGS IN HEAVEN by Barbara Kingsolver

  Annawake Fourkiller, a Cherokee lawyer, recognizes Turtle from a TV news clip, and wants to return her to the tribe.  However, Taylor adopted Turtle after a woman dumped Turtle in Taylor’s car.  Now Taylor and Turtle are inseparable, and they try to disappear.  Taylor soon finds that life on the lam is no picnic, especially since no employer is going to allow Turtle to come along, and day care options are non-existent.  When Taylor’s mother Alice seeks out her long-lost Cherokee cousin, Alice becomes romantically involved with Cash, who turns out to be Turtle’s biological grandfather.  Obviously, there’s got to be some middle ground here that will make everyone happy.  I found it hard to side with Annawake on this conundrum, given that Turtle was physically and sexually abused before she found asylum in Taylor’s car.  Losing their children to outsiders, though, has long been a sticking point with the tribe, who want to make sure that their kids understand their heritage.  Losing one’s ancestral identity seems to me to be a small price to pay for personal safety and well-being, but Turtle’s abusers are out of the picture, and her grandfather is a kind man who has long been deprived of contact with his granddaughter.  This is a sticky situation, and Kingsolver handles it with her usual compassion and tenderness.  My favorite character is Jax, Taylor’s laidback boyfriend, who is honest to a fault and loves Taylor wholeheartedly.  What’s not to love about a musician whose band is called Irascible Babies?  Taylor and Turtle could do a lot worse.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

THE INVENTION OF WINGS by Sue Monk Kidd

The Grimk√© sisters, Sarah and Angelina, grew up in Charleston during the early 1800s.  Their father, a judge and planter, owned slaves, but Sarah and Angelina became abolitionist spokeswomen, who also became advocates for women’s rights.  This novel focuses primarily on Sarah and a mostly fictional slave, Hetty, nicknamed Handful.  I did not know until I read the Author’s Note at the end that Sarah and her sister were actual historical figures, but I began to suspect that some of the events were factual when the author started sprinkling the names of Whittier, Emerson, and Thoreau into the text.  We meet Sarah and Handful when they are both young girls.  Sarah has two goals:  to free Handful and to become an attorney.  As a child, she has no authority to free a slave, and as a girl, she has no chance of studying law.  Instead, she has to watch helplessly the atrocities her mother inflicts on Handful and Handful’s mother.  As an adult, Sarah goes North and converts to Quakerism, since the Quakers oppose slavery and  seem to embrace women as ministers.  Her quest to become a Quaker minister ultimately derails her marriage plans, and she remains single, while her sister marries abolitionist leader Theodore Weld.  The author weaves several historical events into her plot, including an aborted slave insurrection, led by a freed slave, and the use of quilts as tapestries documenting the lives of slaves who could not read and write.  Certainly the novel is well-written and engrossing, but even more admirable are the accomplishments of these two women, who predated Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and possibly influenced that author.  Sarah and Angelina Grimk√© were not just thinkers; they were doers who endured quite a bit of antagonism for being outspoken women and for espousing human rights.  I’m so glad I met them through this novel.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THE VACATIONERS by Emma Straub

A 2-week vacation in Mallorca could be just the ticket for mending all sorts of family rifts.  Franny and Jim Post are joined by 28-year-old son Bobby and 18-year-old daughter Sylvia.  Bobby’s on-and-off girlfriend Carmen comes along, much to Franny’s dismay, as do Charles and Lawrence, a gay couple hoping to adopt a child.  Charles and Franny are such close friends that Charles even watches Franny bathe, as she seeks his advice regarding her cheating husband. (I have to say that I found this scene to be a little odd.)  Jim has been fired from his job for having an affair with an intern, and Sylvia is reeling from having lost her boyfriend to her best friend.  Sylvia, unlike Bobby, has an inkling of what’s going on with her parents, and their marital uncertainty trickles down to her, further causing her footing in the world to be a little unsteady.  She plans to reinvent herself when she starts college at Brown in the fall, and in the meantime hopes to lose her virginity to her handsome Spanish tutor.  Bobby is the least likeable of the lot, with his churlish behavior and atrocious judgment when it comes to money.  His and Carmen’s relationship is probably the most busted of all, and with good reason.  Charles and Lawrence are the relationship role models here, dealing with their own fidelity issues, discussing Charles’s unusually tight friendship with Franny, and contemplating their future role as parents.  There’s really not that much of a plot here; it’s definitely more of a character study, sort of a multi-generational Big Chill, where some relationships get mended, some get cemented, and some die on the vine.

Monday, September 1, 2014

LAURA LAMONT'S LIFE IN PICTURES by Emma Straub

Elsa Emerson is the youngest daughter in a family of thespians in rural Wisconsin in the 1920s.  After her beautiful older sister’s romance with a charismatic actor in the family’s theatre company ends in tragedy, the family goes into a tailspin.  Elsa grabs the first opportunity to escape to Hollywood, in the form of yet another charismatic actor, Gordon Pitts.  Gordon manages to land a studio contract with a steady income, while Laura puts her movie star ambitions on hold.  Pregnant with her second child, she catches the eye of Irving Green, a studio executive, who renames her Laura Lamont.  As Gordon’s career starts to wane, Laura’s takes off, and the two part ways, as Gordon becomes more and more seedy.  Irving begins to squire Laura around Hollywood, and soon the two are married.  Irving is basically a saint, and Laura loves him dearly.  Theirs is a storybook marriage—unusual by Hollywood standards.  Laura’s life as a celebrity, however, has its ups (an Academy Award) and downs (more family tragedies), and Laura’s coping mechanism is an addiction to barbiturates.  (Doesn’t this sound a little too familiar?)  Plus, the roles for women her age are not as plentiful as they were when she was younger, and she turns down a role as a mother, despite the fact that she has three children by now.  She reaches an all-time low when her best friend has to fire her from a ridiculous game show.  I enjoyed this book, with Laura and all of her foibles, but her journey is not all that uncommon:  Small town girl is discovered, marries a big shot, and then has to find her way back to who she really is.  She finds strength in her family, and I don’t mean the one in Wisconsin.  (Her mother has no complaint about her running off with Gordon but cannot forgive her for changing her name and marrying a Jew.)