Where'd You Go, Bernadette: A Novel

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Photographic Thaw

If you’re going to accidentally leave almost two dozen unprocessed photo negatives out for 100 years, there’s no better place to store them than a block of ice in Antarctica. Conservationists restoring an Antarctic exploration hut found the negatives left from Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal 1910-13 Terre Nova Expedition to the South Pole. For a less harrowing tale of Arctic exploration, check out our review of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Judging Books by Their Covers 2013: U.S. Vs. U.K.

As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while many of us no longer do most of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.


I much prefer the U.K. version here. The woodblock art is sublime, and the red and black are nice and bold.

 
 

A Year in Reading: Janet Potter

Some people say there are too many literary awards. I say there are not enough.

The 2012 Janet Potter Awards for Literary Achievement

Best Re-read
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Since 2005, I’ve been telling people that Cloud Atlas is my favorite novel, even as a detailed memory of the book faded. A high-stakes re-read in October determined whether I can continue to make that claim. I can.

Best Departure from Form
Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Rowling’s novel about small town politics, unhappy families, and class warfare is a melancholy affair, although the towns and streets still have adorable names and the villains are still buffoons. Having proven that she has an edgy side, I hope she’ll let the pendulum stop somewhere between fantasy and tragedy for the next one.

Funniest
Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson

(While recreating one of James Bond’s journeys, Ronson stalls a borrowed Aston Martin in the middle of an intersection.)
Passersby shake their heads witheringly at me. I think they’re mistaking my ineptitude for arrogance. Were I in my customary crappy car, they’d understand my stalling for what it is. Instead, they’re seeing a fabulously sleek Aston Martin braking abruptly, then revving like a lunatic. They probably think it’s my sick, slightly odd way of conveying superiority over them.

I reach the ferry. I wind down the window. ‘It’s not my car!’ I shout gaily at the immigration officer.
Most Descriptions of Characters’ Butts
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon.

By a mile.

Best Use of Emails as Character Development
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

This motif usually grates on me, but Semple’s fictional emails are superb parody and woven in nicely. I wish she’d email me.

Most Dissonant Reading Experience
Listening to the audiobook of Julia Child’s My Life in France in the car while eating drive-thru McDonald’s.

Best Comedy of Manners
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. We had all had our supper, or were supposed to have had it, and were met together to discuss the arrangements for the Christmas bazaar. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, “Do we need tea?” she echoed. “But Miss Lathbury…” She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my questions had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.

I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.
Most Belated Reading Experience
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

The first time I ever intentionally didn’t finish an assignment was when my fourth grade class read The Hobbit. I found it so mind-numbingly boring that I stopped reading it, probably in favor of something in the Black Stallion series, but then had to sit through class discussions of the book in a cold sweat of fear and guilt. On January 5, 2012, I finished The Hobbit.

Strongest Confirmation of Public Opinion
Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Everyone is right. This book is great.

Strongest Refutation of Public Opinion
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Everyone is wrong. This book is not great.

Best Description of the Afterlife
Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
Occasionally one of the dead, someone who had just completed the crossing, would mistake the city for heaven. It was a misunderstanding that never persisted for long. What kind of heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end? No, the city was not heaven, and it was not hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else. More and more people came to adopt the theory that it was an extension of life itself—a sort of outer room—and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory.
Most Nightmare-Inducing
Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

He’s so good. For weeks after reading this book I was spooked of kids, pets, trees, phones, human interaction.

Biggest Crush on a Historical Figure
Grant by Jean Edward Smith

This year Ulysses S. Grant joined John Quincy Adams in the pantheon of my most-loved presidents. (Don’t ask me to choose!) I’d put my muddy boots up on a porch rail with him any day.

Hardest Book to Write About
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

It’s hard to love a book and not be able to talk about it, but the moments of genius in Flynn’s book are the twists and revelations. The upside of this is that having read Gone Girl is like being in a club. Every time I find out someone else has read it, our eyes get big and we grab each other’s shoulders and start whisper-screaming.

Best Read of the Year
Arcadia by Lauren Groff

I gushed about this book in April. Eight months later I maintain everything I said, and can now say it was my favorite book of the year. If I only came across a book like that once a year, it would still be worth reading the other fifty to find that one.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Emma Straub

I am very bad at reading books at the right time — if a book is freshly published and sitting face out on a shelf, there is little to no chance that I will read it within the year. I buy it, of course (gotta support the authors and the local bookstores) and then I put it on the stack and make it wait its turn. This year was no exception — most of my favorite reads were either galleys of books that will come out in 2013 or older books that finally made it to the top of the bedside tower. The galleys were books that I blurbed or books that my friends wrote (or both), so perhaps it’s a bit gauche to name them here, but I will anyway. Early 2013 is going to be off the chain: Stuart Nadler’s epic American slam-dunk of a novel, Wise Men; Ariel Djanikian’s scientifically terrifying post-apocalyptic novel The Office of Mercy; Jessica Francis Kane’s crystalline and beautiful new story collection, This Close; Jennifer Gilmore’s achingly sad and moving novel about adoption, The Mothers. And that’s just the first few months of next year.

Then there were the books that everyone else had already read and loved: Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, which made me swoon over descriptions of baseball, which I otherwise find excruciatingly boring; Tana French’s In the Woods, which made me want to read her entire catalog in a single sitting; Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant, which made me want to levitate; Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, which made me think twice about petting feral cats in Brooklyn.

I actually like waiting to read books, because then the hoopla has hooped down the street and the buzz has stopped buzzing and it’s just you and the page in front of you, and then the page after that. Still, even I am occasionally immune to my own rules, and accidentally read a book immediately after purchasing it. This year, I gulped down Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. Each one was precise, skilled, quick-witted, and warm-hearted. Well worth the price of (hardcover) admission and all of the (richly deserved) accolades. Sometimes all that buzz is there for a reason.

More from A Year in Reading 2012
Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

This Book Is Funny: Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette

I will tell you a secret. If you ask a bookseller about a novel and they say, “It’s really funny,” you needn’t read that book. It’s bookseller-speak for “this book has little else going for it,” the literary equivalent of a good personality. Same goes for “I’ve heard good things,” “People really like it,” and “It’s been popular with book clubs.” At least, these were my code words for mediocre books during my 10 years as a bookseller.

On the rare occasion that literary fiction is deeply moving and hysterically funny (Skippy Dies), I find myself leaving the funny part out of my description, or saving it for last, once I have convinced someone of the book’s extreme literary merit. “It’s also really funny,” I say, hastening to add, “but mostly it’s just really moving and wise.”

Of course, in the case of non-fiction, “it’s really funny” is high praise, a sure way to sell a book. Such are the vagaries of bookselling.

What I’m saying is that when I got a copy of Where’d You Go, Bernadette I set it aside. Funny books are not for me, you see, because I’ve read War and Peace three times, and the publicity for Bernadette is adamant about how funny it is. Its author, Maria Semple, has written for Arrested Development and Mad About You, and this is her second book. I turn to TV and movies for comedy and romance and reserve my reading for deep sad people like Per Petterson.

I eventually did pick up Bernadette because a few trusted reviewers had told me it had its merits and because I was tired of reading about young British men losing their virginity between the wars, which is another story. Lo and behold, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is really, really funny, and not in the usual way that suggests the author is trying to be funny to cover up their deficiencies in plot or styling. As it turns out, Maria Semple is both a good writer and a funny writer, but she prefers to be the latter.

It may be those TV instincts — which, for better or worse, I was endlessly picking out in her work — but given the choice Semple will almost always make a scene ridiculous. The book as a whole is, intentionally, a farce.

Elgin Branch and his wife Bernadette Fox live in Seattle with their fifteen-year-old daughter, Bee. Elgin heads up a classified robotics division at Microsoft. Bernadette is a once-famous and revolutionary architect who hasn’t worked in years, and is going a little nuts. Bee is an ideal child. Over the course of three months, their lives fall apart, and the story is told through a collection of documents, mostly emails, between the characters.

The main problem is that Bernadette hates Seattle. She hates the parking meters, she hates the rain, she really hates the other moms. This has made her unbalanced, and she unburdens herself in long emails to a virtual assistant in India. Lucky for us, the moms hate her back. The email correspondence between two of the moms at Bee’s school (one of whom is their next-door neighbor, one of whom is Elgin’s secretary) are the treasures of the book. These two ladies are so awash in pop psychology, upper-class entitlement, and defensive parenting as to result in a combination of self-awareness and self-delusion that is at once unbelievable and immediately recognizable. Consider:
Today at Whole Foods, a woman I didn’t even recognize recognized me and said she was looking forward to my brunch. Judging from the contents of her shopping cart — imported cheese, organic raspberries, fruit wash spray — she is the exact quality of parent we need at Galer Street. I saw her in the parking lot. She was driving a Lexus. Not a Mercedes, but close enough!
Via their emails, school memos, Bernadette’s exchanges with her virtual assistant, police reports, ER bills, and interjections by Bee, we are told a story of rumor, miscommunication, and distrust that pushes Bernadette to skip town. All this manic action is well-plotted and masterfully satirical, which is obviously Semple’s TV-trained forte. She’s never not playing to her strengths, introducing absurdist comedy into the most somber of situations. There are times when she’s having such fun making fun of the secondary characters that the primary characters get ignored. It’s hard to believe that absolutely everyone the Branch-Fox family comes into contact with is that kooky, but then this isn’t a believable story, it’s a comedy.

After Bernadette disappears and Elgin and Bee are left to uncover her whereabouts, the secondary characters and their wacky emails all fade away and the story becomes, in the end, about the family. It may seem too late if you were hoping for an earnest family story all along, but if you’re willing to enjoy it as a parody of first-world life then you’ll like this book. It’s really funny.

Surprise Me!

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