The Hype is Right: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Book Spoilery Review)

Of the million reasons I don’t want to go to Antarctica, the main one is that it will require me to leave the house.”

 

Flipping through five pages of praise to get to the actual storyline of Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a telling sign. Plus: the book is set in the month of November when it starts, which is the current month, and reading something that’s set in the same period of time is only a bonus that works in my favor, same as I mentioned back in my review for The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel (set in June, read in June).

When they say this book is made up of emails and letters, they’re not kidding. The whole first half of this book uses anything and everything, except standard chapters, to tell the story of the Branch family (consisting of 15-year-old Bee and her parents Bernadette Fox and Elgie) and the people in their orbit. We have transcripts taken from FBI documents, emails, articles, handwritten notes, an extravagant and detailed emergency room bill, and all the gossip-filled correspondences from Galer Street. In short: It’s a hoot to read through.

The longer overview:

  • I’ve been in the mood for a book that resembles Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere ever since I completed it about a year ago, so the premise of Where’d You Go, Bernadette exploring the rich white neighborhood of Galer Street, but also introducing complex components that have us in this love-to-hate relationship with certain characters (*ahem* Aubrey) had me intrigued.
  • I have to grant it to Bernadette, though, for first catching my attention with this spiel on the overpowering energy it requires to simply be with people:

“The only way to get to Antarctica is by cruise ship. Even the smallest one has 150 passengers, which translates into me being trapped with 149 other people who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small talk, etc. Or worse, they might turn their curiosity toward me, and expect pleasantry in return. I’m getting a panic attack just thinking about it. A little social anxiety never hurt anyone, am I right?”

  • All the praise was raving about how hilarious this book was, so I kept an eye out for some uproarious laughter to consume me only to realize that Where’d You Go, Bernadette doesn’t feature that in-your-face outrageous humor but rather the everyday kind where you’re talking and just are on the same wavelength of humor when talking and sharing. It’s so nice to see it play out on the page.

“See, I never thought through the actual implication of you applying to boarding schools. I.e., that you’d be leaving us. But really, it’s fine with me if you run off. I’ll still see you every day.”
I glowered at her.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” she said. “I’m going to move to Wallingford and rent a house off campus. I already got a job working in the Choate dining hall.”
“Don’t even joke,” I said.”

This right here made a smile creep up on my face because it’s Bernadette’s only upper hand as a mother to a teen. It’s the good-humored kind of family jokes where you just know each other well enough to know what ticks them off and what doesn’t.

The kind of humor that makes you feel good, not at the cost of someone, unless, of course, we’re talking about… Dun Dun Duuuuun:

  • Audrey Griffin aka “call-the-manager” type of person:

Honesty, the skill it takes to somehow turn the events around so that everyone but her is at blame is astonishing. You do not want to be in her favor. Or ever owe her anything ever. A great example of this are her letters to the director of Gaylor Street School, Gwen Goodyear:

“Speaking of Warren, he’s looking into the legality of letting a student who’s a known drug abuser finish out the semester. Isn’t that a threat to the other students? I’m asking out of curiosity.
If you’re so hell-bent on placing blame, I suggest you look in the mirror.”

Bam. Her letters to fallible Gwen Goodyear were always a ruckus. She emits that passive-aggressiveness that’s more like aggressive-aggressiveness, and it’s something else to experience from the sidelines.

Also, her accomplice Soo-Lin who’s a known homewrecker (TIME-OUT REALITY CHECK: honestly, I’m perplexed as to what good she thought would come out of chasing after a married man????) (the married man in question is a cheat, as well, for trying to neatly pack up his wife, instead of questioning what’s going on and actually communicate his thoughts to her.) So I wasn’t mad at Audrey for handling Soo-Lin some dose of aggressive-aggressiveness;

“How’s this for irony? Remember when you were divorcing Barry, and Warren handled the whole thing for you gratis, saving you thirty thousand dollars? Remember when you literally sobbed in gratitude, promising you’d make it up to us? Here’s your chance! I’ll let myself in with the key under the cupid.
One question. What do you want for dinner? I’m going to have a feast waiting when you get home.
Blessings, you!”

As well as, Bernadette getting to take her own jab at Soo-Lin’s expense: “FOX: You’re a Seattle-born secretary and you have no place in this house!”

You do not get to wreck a home and expect to go by unscathed. You do not mess up someone’s marriage just because they’re unhappy in it. That is nowhere your place to intervene. I received some closure when Soo-Lin had her moment of realization, alas a tad too late.

Surprisingly, Audrey Griffin grew to have the most the most character development, but the writing didn’t demonstrate it thoroughly with the constant skimming over her life. I wanted to hear more on Audrey and her son, Kyle, getting better. Kyle is a jackass with his antics, but he’s on the road to redemption with his unrelating, force-of-nature mother by his side.

One of those antics relate to Bee:

“(We weren’t allowed to wait in the office ever since Kyle Griffin was sent there one day, and when nobody was looking he went through the Galer Street directory and started calling all the parents from the main office number. So when the parents looked at their cell phones, it said there was an incoming call from Galer Street. They’d answer, and Kyle screamed, “There’s been an accident!” and hung up. From then on, all the kids had to wait outside.)”

  • The praise for this book also mentioned how it’s full of emails and letters, so I assumed they were interspersed throughout the chapters, but nope, they mean what they say. Where’d You Go, Bernadette starts with the Branch family then veers off into different characters orbiting them by sneaking into their personal exchanges and interaction. It makes for a particularly entertaining epistolary format, similar perhaps to Illuminae in a contemporary setting. I love dialogue-driven stories so transcript and emails are my favorite things to speed through a book.
  • I was surprised to find that it was solely told in that medium until the investigation concerning Bernadette’s whereabouts reaches a dead-end, and we return to the usual chapter format. So the characters get to comment on the first half of the book, aka the bunch of concentrated files, and they get to say what we’d been thinking throughout.

“You were a real rock star, Dad, walking down the aisle of the Microsoft Connector.”
“I didn’t write that!”
“Your girlfriend did!”

  • However, I feel like so much of this book focused on the action of getting to Antarctica and reconnecting the clues on Bernadette’s whereabouts (when in reality it’s just a major case of miscommunication) that we kind of missed expanding on the character-driven aspect of this story. I mean, the main conflict of the book is in the title, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but it’s about so much more than piecing together clues. It’s about family and owning up to your mistakes and coming of age and mother-daughter connections. The last one I had the most joy uncovering.

“I was going through an Abbey Road phase because I had just read a book about the last days of the Beatles, and I spent most of breakfast telling Mom about it.”

I wanted more moment like this that show how supportive and close Bee and Bernadette are… like with their mutual love for Cliff Mass, the weather boy *echo of wouldn’t you like to know weather-boy* who likes to uses fancy words and long-winded sentences to essentially say it’s just raining.

Oh my God, can someone please stop me before I write more about Cliff Mass?”

These revealing moments I found to be missing in the whirlwind to keep up with the plot. Details help me fall into a story and the characters, as it was written so wisely in Mitch Albom’s For One More Day: Details were something to grab on to, a way to insert myself into the story.

  • Going back to the start, Bernadette’s vulnerability when Bee was born struck a chord.

“Here’s what inconsolable looks like: me sitting in my car in the parking lot of Children’s Hospital, all the windows rolled up, wearing my hospital gown, twelve inches of pads between my legs and Elgie’s parka over my shoulders, Elgie standing outside in the dark, trying to make me out through fogged windows. I was all torture and adrenaline. I had no thoughts, no emotions. Inside me roiled something so terrible that God knew he had to keep my baby alive, or this torrent within me would be unleashed on the universe.”

She needed some sunshine after the big dark cloud that had been following her for years. And it came in the form of her daughter Bee.

“Was I really so bad that I deserved to have three years of my life destroyed for some rich prick’s practical joke? So I had some cars towed, yes. I made a gate out of trash doorknobs. I’m an artist. I won a MacArthur grant, for fuck’s sake. Don’t I get a break? I’ll be watching TV and see Nigel Mills-Murray’s name at the end. I’ll go nuts inside. He gets to keep creating, and I’m the one who’s still in pieces?”

I wanted to delve deeply into moments like these that came to shape the family.

  • Lastly, Elgie Branch does not deserve Bernadette in this universe or any alternate creation. Their relationship was another aspect that wasn’t expanded on, so I had nothing to hold on as to why these two even got together in the first place to start a family. So Elgie and his brash decision making can jump into infinity and beyond.

“You look for horses,” I said. “While you spent your whole life at work, me and Mom were having the best, funnest time ever. Mom and I lived for each other. She wouldn’t do anything close to getting drunk and walking next to a ship’s balcony because it would mean she might never see me again. That you think she would shows how little you know her. You look for horses, Dad.”

Bee knows Bernadette; you don’t.

Thank you for coming to my #4-most-watched TEDTalk of all time.

“From: Audrey Griffin
To: Soo-Lin Lee-Segal
I don’t give a fig about Ted. I don’t know who he is and I don’t care what he says during this talk you refuse to shut up about.”

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My Appreciation For the Name Noah in Old Men at Midnight by Chaim Potok

“If he tells you stories, will you tell them to me?”

Full disclosure: I love the name Noah.

I like saying it, I like hearing it, and I like seeing it written on the page. The first story in Old Men at Midnight was like a love letter for the name Noah for the amount it was featured from page to page. I picked this book up at the library, upon turning around to face the library shelf it was on and randomly reaching out because I was familiar with the author’s name and wanted to read his words for the longest time, only to flip to the first page and have the very first word jump out at me: Noah.

All following details were a bonus, like the fact that he’s a sixteen-year-old survivor all on his own, living with his aunt and uncle in Brooklyn, under the tutelage of eighteen-year-old, Davita.

Old Men at Midnight is a trilogy of related novellas about a woman whose life touches three very different men—stories that encompass some of the profoundest themes of the twentieth century.

Ilana Davita Dinn is the listener to whom three men relate their lives.

Old Men at Midnight varies stylistically from what I usually reach for in my books, featuring writing style with minimal dialogue. But I was willing to take the plunge for Noah Stremin.

“Noah is the only one who survived.”
“The only one in his family? I am sorry.”
“ The only Jew in the town.”
I felt cold to the bone.
“Four thousand Jews, and he is the only survivor. My husband and I, we say to ourselves God saved him for a reason.”

I felt instant compassion and connection to Noah. His story captures so much of the loss survivors never regain. “You have pictures. I have nothing.”

I realized about halfway through the story that though I was here for Noah, his character would only be present for “The Ark Builder,” and I had two more men to get through. And following someone betraying his people to serve in the KGB in “The War Doctor,” or reading vulgar descriptions of women in “The Trope Teacher” didn’t seem ideal. Like this:

“Close up, a woman small and dainty in stature, jeans tight, without the revealing curve of panties, he couldn’t help noticing; sandals and thin ankles and bare toes; he felt the beat and drum of his blood.”

I’m perplexed as to why he seems to think this adds anything valuable to the book… And unfortunately this isn’t the worst to come:

“She must have sensed his approach, for she straightened and turned. He noticed immediately the bony shoulders and small, firm breasts and the nipples beneath the blue jersey. She was not wearing a brassiere.”

This only made me think back to this post:

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 09.46.55

I got what I wanted from my Noah story, and it’s best to leave it at that. I’m still on a mission to find as many books with characters named Noah (so far my list includes: TRC by Maggie Stiefvater, the Mara Dyer Series, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, and Turtles All the Way Down). If by chance you have any additional recommendations please let me know in the comments below.

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Glowing Review of Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon (all about Daphna’s Iconic Lines)

Reading Bad Jews was the perfect antidote to my book-rage, courtesy of “An American family” in Risk! (which I talk all about in my rant review here), tackling the same issue of American assimilation in Jews.

Bad Jews is the story of Daphna Feygenbaum, a “Real Jew” with an Israeli boyfriend she met on Birthright. When Daphna’s cousin Liam brings home his shiksa girlfriend Melody and declares ownership of their grandfather’s Chai necklace, a vicious and hilarious brawl over family, faith and legacy ensues.

I went into this carefully paging through the pages, hoping to land into the story and get a feel of what direction this was going, either a) it was going to be a disaster on par with what raised my wrath in the first place to turn to this book or b) it was going to be exactly what soothes the raging storms in my head courtesy of that story. I practically went into the play with my eyes squinted close in fear. Thankfully (!!), Bad Jews came to settle for the latter soothing option.

In one line: I can’t even begin to explain how much I appreciate this play simply for existing. It not only raises vicariously important questions regarding religion and identity in Jews, but it dares to answer them expertly.

Also, thanks to the rising tempers established between Daphna and Liam from the very start, my breath was tight, following along their clap-backs from line to line, like a Ping-Pong match. Bad Jews is a genuine, concise story that moves at a delicious pace, thanks to Daphna’s lines.

Speaking of which, it’s while paging through the play that I stumbled along this exchange between Daphna and Liam’s shiksa that hooked me in like a spell.

DAPHNA
People are just people?
MELODY
Yes. People are people. It doesn’t matter that you’re Jewish or I’m—
DAPHNA
It doesn’t matter that I’m Jewish?
MELODY
No.
DAPHNA
It doesn’t matter?
MELODY
No.
DAPHNA
Well it matters to me.
MELODY
Ok.
DAPHNA
It matters to me very much.
MELODY
Right, but—
DAPHNA
And it’s mattered to hundreds of generations of my family.
MELODY
I know—
DAPHNA
But to you: meaningless.

This conversation right here is what I want to see more of. I’ve never seen such a daring character speak my thoughts aloud.

And I’m beyond grateful it didn’t stop here. There’s an incredible piece of writing that follows, and I want to shout it from the rooftops, but in the meantime, I’m sharing it here since that’s the closest route of action. The text’s long but such a worthful read, what with the quick pace that assures a smooth ride:

“You could actually date a woman who was your intellectual equal but instead you find these tepid little Bambi creatures to impose this hyper-masculine hegemenonical totalitarian regime on even though you like to like think you’re like this like super sensitive in touch sensitized like dork-chic Chicago grad student who’s like uber-liberal and totally devoted to the preservation of these little cultural studies because studying Japan is definitely worthy of five years of intensive labor, but studying torah for all of ten minutes is only worthy of total utter snide sniveling disdain; if you found yourself in the middle of a rain dance you would be soooo respectful trying to do every movement perfectly to like honor every Native American who ever lived, but if you found yourself in the middle of a hora— I’ve seen you in the middle of a hora— you look like you want to fucking die; if someone asks your religion you proudly state, “I’m an atheist” but the second anyone starts a little Israel-Palestine discussion, it’s like, find me a stopwatch and let’s count to ten because it won’t even take that long before I hear, “As a Jew …” because then you’re a Jew, but only when you can use it to bash all things Jewish which somehow makes you stand a little taller, doesn’t it, puts a little pep in your step like you’re so fucking enlightened even though you reek of fucking cliché; you haven’t lit a menorah since the nineties, but hello Facebook photos of you in a Santy Claus hat ho-ho-hoing it up next to the Christmas tree you put up in your apartment, and it was kind of obvious that, for whatever reason, you actually liked wearing that cheap fake crushed red velvet hat with the shitty white pom pom on the end, or maybe it wasn’t the hat, maybe it was just getting to stand under the mistletoe and smooch paper-cut-lips Melody, amazing, dynamic, smart-as-shit Melody, the icon of your ideal woman, because we know, a woman who’s actually trying to make something of her life and her intellect is worthy of your harshest criticism but a woman with zero career goals and maybe point two brain cells and less than no talent is a genuinely good person, you two must be so genuinely happy, spending time with her must be a scintillating experience, in fact, I myself had the chance to talk with her this evening and she really does offer up an intellectual feast for the mind, I can only imagine the topics you two must cover in your daily conversation, subjects like, how cute she looks on the bunny hill, or, how cute she looks in her Talbots secretary outfits, or really what it all comes down to: hhhhow nice it is to fuck an ethnic-free bush!
Yeah Shlomo. You’re right: your girlfriends aren’t inferior. You are.”

Mic drop. I truly think this deserves to be displayed in a museum.

Daphna touches upon 1) Jews assimilating so much so that they don’t define themselves as Jews and try to leech on to any other culture that has an opening. 2) Celebrating Hanukah is shameful yet putting up a Christmas tree doesn’t hold any religious aspects for you… 3) Crushing Liam to the GROUND.

The aforementioned is also the most thought-out argument I’ve ever laid my eyes on, and I’m raging that Liam didn’t address the TRUEST of objections and reasonings. Like, how can you hear all this and still think you’re right? HOW?

“Ah, yes, don’t respond to my truth. Dismiss me.”

Even going the extra mile of calling him out for what he really is: an anti-Semite. Non-practicing Jews can be just as severe in their hatred since they’re rebelling against their people and know exactly where it hits hard.

Hence my fuming upon Liam using “love” to his defense… YOUR IDEA OF “LOVE” DOES NOT TRUMP MORALITY. This right here is exactly the influence of Western culture that brainwashes people into giving everything up for Oh, Love heart-eyed sigh. It’s the idolization of “amour” that led the infamous playwright Molière to marry his own daughter. Or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that is pure puppy love, yet deemed to be the love of a lifetime, and without one must simply die. 

As I heard in a moving lecture, love isn’t merely physiological or romantic; something deeper has to found to establish a wider connection that will last the rising statistics. Sharing values and intellect is a great starting point; Get on it, Liam.

So, as you can read, Bad Jews got me beyond passionate and riled-up with words, thankfully, this time for the better. I cherish it when a book can get a good discussion out of me.

…Which is why I have to include one last piece of Daphna, who I’m low-key obsessed with, thanks to her excellent lines:

DAPHNA
Don’t you know what— don’t you see how this little object is— don’t you care?, that if you put that around her neck, you’re killing something.
LIAM
Killing something?
DAPHNA
Something that matters.
LIAM
It doesn’t matter.
DAPHNA
You are Poppy’s grandson. You know it matters.
LIAM
Not to me.
DAPHNA
You’re getting a Ph.D. in cultural studies!
LIAM
So?
DAPHNA
So culture matters! Who people are, matters. Look at the Nobel Prizes— look at how disproportionately Jewish people have achieved in economics, literature, science—
LIAM
Are we really gonna do chosen people talk? Really?
DAPHNA
22%! That’s the percentage of Nobel Prize winners who are Jewish.
LIAM
Now you’re memorizing Jewish statistics? Fuck.
DAPHNA
Do you know what our global population is? It’s not 22%, not even close.
LIAM
So in the hopes of more Jews winning Nobel Prizes I should marry a Jew? Is that seriously your point?
DAPHNA
No my point is, play this out. You get married, you two get married and you have kids, so they’re half-Jewish and half-Delaware. And that kid marries someone who is Asian, and they have a kid, so that kid is a quarter Jewish, a quarter Delaware, and half Asian, and that kid marries someone who is half-black and half-Puerto Rican and they have a kid, and so that kid is—
LIAM
They’re American!
DAPHNA
In a couple generations, all these kids are running around bearing the hyphenated names of cultures that no longer exist. It’ll be just one giant globalized corporate world populated by one kind of people, who all speak one language and shop at the same store and all look the same. That’s how it ends up unless—
MELODY
No, it’s like that John Lennon song! It’s our country, like, succeeding. Like, progress! No nations, no religions, no—
DAPHNA
A world without Jews is progress? 

Melody, a) nobody asked your cosmopolitan worldview b) John Lennon was anti-Semitic, so stop bringing him up as this leading example when you have no clue and c) the only reason people like Melody exist is for people like Daphna to put them in their place. I thrive off of this. Thank you, Daphna.

DAPHNA
How does your half-Jewish daughter teach her one-quarter Jewish daughter to be Jewish? Exactly how does that work?

And one more epic mic-drop for the road:

“DAPHNA
Ok. So stop. You know what? Let’s all stop. Let’s all decide, right now, we’re going to stop being Jewish. That’s what you want? You think you’re the first person to ever question it? Cause I bet there were people before us who had questions too, but they kept practicing. They didn’t stop. None of them did. And they didn’t exactly have it easy, but they never stopped. And this thing that people in our family were doing in 1900 and in 1800 and in 1500 and in 200 and in 500 BCE made it all the way here to us. That alone has got to at least give you pause. And so now, when it’s easier to be Jewish than it has ever been in the history of the world, now when it’s safest, now we should all stop?
I can’t. I can’t.
And if I know you at all, you don’t want me to stop either. Because if I stop, if we all stop, it will be gone. And you can’t get it back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

This has been echoing in my mind all day.

I’ve included so many of Daphna’s incredibly revealing lines so that I can return time and again, since it perfectly words my thoughts on paper, in case I ever need a refresher of my opinions before discussions occur with a Liam™…

Towards the end, the most pivotal scene had me nearly screaming inside. The stakes were raised so high, I could practically hear the characters screaming off the page, and it made for such an exhilarating, fulfilling ending.

DAPHNA
Don’t put that …
Don’t you put that …
DON’T YOU FUCKING PUT THAT AROUND HER NECK!

At this point, when Daphna’s anger at the shiksa is spilling over, I was at the very edge of my seat, low-key hoping for the story to end with a certain someone ending up injured… I got my tiny, victorious moment when Melody exposed her true face after her ongoing “peace love & unity” façade.

“MELODY
Take me to the hospital. I want to go to the hospital.
LIAM
Really?
MELODY
Yes! I’m bleeding! And that thing is rusty! I could have been—
LIAM
It’s made of gold, gold doesn’t—
MELODY
It was in someone’s mouth! I could have an infection. I want to go to the hospital.”

This right here shows how undeserving she is to join this family and wear something as sacred as the Chai necklace that Poppy saved through the Holocaust as the only family heirloom and symbol of his family massacred by the Nazis. So Melody, kindly, go back to sleep and starve.

Bad Jews should be required reading for any Jew contemplating non-Jews. It raises so many epic scope themes and ideas through thrilling truths that one must hear at least once in their lifetime. A few of those include, as the author notes in the preface: “Why was I born a Jew? What is the value of Judaism today? What does it mean when someone born a Jew moves away from the religion, and chooses not to pass it on to the next generation? What does it mean to watch something go extinct?”

I’ll recommend this play over and over to anyone that’ll listen.

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