Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go Bernadette was swallowed in its enti15790857 (1)rety by the hype monster. For awhile, you couldn’t exist in book world without being inundated with Maria Semple’s latest novel from every corner. Best Book of the YEAR so many bookish types boasted. And I bought into the hype, bought the book, and then proceeded to be mostly disappointed.

Bernadette is mom to Bee and quite the eccentric. She’s mostly a recluse and hates pretty much everyone in the surrounding Seattle area. But when Bee brings home the perfect report card, Bernadette is forced to give in and accept Bee’s reward – a family vacation to Antarctica. Wackiness starts to unfold in the weeks leading up the the trip until Bernadette suddenly goes missing. Semple’s novel is a collection of correspondences put together by Bee in an attempt to locate her mother. Sounded ingenious.

But here’s the thing – I was mostly bored or annoyed. On the surface, I can’t fault Bernadette much. As a lighthearted beach read there’s a lot to enjoy here. I may have even chuckled out loud once or twice. But read any deeper and things start to unravel. Not all that much happens, and Bernadette is unlikable.

Now unlikable characters can have a lot going for them and are often the most interesting characters to read. That’s where Bernadette fails. I didn’t find Bernadette fleshed out enough to be interesting. I felt there was nothing to learn from her and that mostly the reasons presented by Semple for her craziness weren’t very substantial. I was left scratching my head and mostly just wanting to smack Bernadette. What’s even worse is that all of the adult characters are mostly the same – annoying and not in the least bit interesting. The quirkiness of this book worked against the story when it should have enhanced the story.

At many times, the novel mostly felt like a ‘let’s all hate on Seattle and bash the readers over their heads with Seattle stereotypes’. That gets old quickly. What, if anything, saves this book is Bernadette and Bee’s relationship. Their mother-daughter bond felt unique and honest. I enjoyed the scenes they had together and wished there had been more. I think Bernadette tries a little too hard to be quirky and loses its grip on reality.

Have you read Where’d You Go Bernadette? What did you think? Does it deserve to be on ‘best of’ lists?

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

David Sedaris is a funny, funny man.  Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a funny, funny book.  It’s basically just a collection of anecdotal short stories involving animal characters highlighting some rather crass human behaviors.  Every once in a blue moon, an uplifting, lighthearted story sneaks in, but don’t expect that to be the norm.

Victoria asked me if I thought the novel was good upon completion and I immediately responded – ‘If you have my sense of humor’.  This response put her on her guard as well it should.  Sedaris’s humor rivals my own in appreciating the twisted and, admittedly, grotesque.  These animals let it all hang out in brutal, disturbing, and hilarious ways.  Crows eat the eyes of baby ewes.  Fuzzy bunnies go on killing rampages in the name of safety.  And they are all illustrated with NOTHING HELD BACK.  Sometimes the pictures even squeaked me out.

But never fear, there’s something for the faint of heart as well and the book ends with a truly delightful story involving the friendship between a hippo, an owl, and a gerbil that symbolizes a strange sort of beauty among humans and a hopeful triumph of our troubled species.

Now back to the dark bits – I totally understand why people have a problem reading this book.  They get so bogged down in the nasty pictures and gory plot lines, turning every page in utter abhorrence of Sedaris’s audacity.  All the while, they are failing to grasp the underlining morality of each simple tale.  The extremes in this book are merely portraying actualy animal behaviors that come naturally, no matter how upsetting.   Crows will eat eyeballs – sorry if you don’t approve.  But did you happen to notice how the mother sheep was a complete bitch, a condescending mother, and just an all around poor example of humanity?  I was engrossed in the juxtaposition of instinctual animal survival against the crass, but more benign, human behaviors that are a CHOICE and believe Sedaris is a genius.

I recommend Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and hope you give it a shot!  You’ve been warned, so be prepared for some pretty intense imagery.  I’m glad I won this book in our book club book swap and can’t wait to return it to Victoria to hear her undoubtedly argue with me about the necessity of the violence.  Please feel free to do the same!