Saturday, September 15, 2012

Falling into Books

My weekend reading

The reader's dilemma: what's next?  Sometimes, I just got nothing. I click through my laptop's bookmarks, browse my reliable stash of French decorating magazines (gorgeously photographed  escapism) or flip through mail order catologues. (My last Pottery Barn purchase, three burlap-covered lampshades, was around 2006,  yet their faith in my continued patronage continues unabated.) Other times, the mental to-read list is long and a new book sits shining on the coffee table, waiting for the house to quiet down at night so we can settle in together.

This fall I am happily in the latter position. There is a giant bunch of newly released novels by huge heavy weight authors, including Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Junot Diaz.  (See this story in The New York Times.) I've  enjoyed all these writers in the past, especially Diaz's Pulitizer Prize-winning The Brief Wondorous Life of Oscar Wao. But right now,  I think Chabon's Telegraph Avenue will be my first pick from the stack. The setting, Oakland and Berkeley,  and the theme of unwanted change being thrust upon characters,  two record store owners who confront a hip megastore moving into the area as well as family strife,  both appeal to me. Coping as old and new convergence of is such a theme of our times. (I say this as an iPhone-owning collector of vintage typewriters.)

But very first on my list is Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, a TV writer (Arrested Development) and novelist with a wicked sense of humor. The book, about a midlife L.A. lady losing her identity after a move to Seattle, has been getting favorable reviews. So last weekend I scanned the first page at my local book store. It's the report card of the protagonist Bernadette's daughter, Bee, who attends a pretentious private school.


Any parent (or person) who has had to parse  the double-talk educational jargon at a back-to-school night or instantaneously assume a perfect poker face as an acquaintance corners them with the breathless news of their intellectually gifted child's recent academic accomplishments will lap up Semple. The child's report card and the book's first sentence begins with the fictional school's mission statement.  (If you have been laboring under the misbegotten assumption that any grade school's mission is to  teach reading and writing and 'rithmatic, you're more agoraphobic than Bernadette.)  It says, "Galer Street School is a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet." Then the grades are explained

S   Surpasses Excellence
A  Achieves Excellence
W  Working towards Excellence

I plan to start the book tonight, but earlier this week was treated to a hilarious preview when the author read at The Grove's Barnes and Noble here in Los Angeles. She also answered questions from the audience and signed books.   A contingent of her comrades from TV, including her boyfriend, former Simpsons uber-writer George Meyer,  and Dan Castellaneta, who voices Homer Simpson and half the other characters on the show. Meyer was sweetly snapping photos of Semple signing books.  New Yorker magazine writer and author Susan Orlean stood in back, wearing a cute dress.

Semple explained that she ultimately sees her book as a mother-daughter love story. (Semple and Meyer live in Seattle with their daughter, Poppy,)  but it is also a classic fish-out-of-water tale drawn on Semple's own experience of leaving L.A. for Seattle and trying to fit into the culture of earnest volunteerism at her child's private school.

Stuff kept tripping her up. One troubling thing was called the Wonder Wall. It was a place in her child's classroom where children posed questions beginning with "I wonder why. . . " One darling asked "I wonder why all the moms but one volunteer in the class." Of course, the slacker was Semple. "I don't have a very big imagination," she joked about mining such material as inspiration for her book.  "I just took everything from real life." As she was trying to cope she had phone sessions with her L.A. shrink, who finally told the frustrated artist that she needed to create something or she would destroy the world. Hence the novel.  As she explained this, she scanned the room to see if said shrink was present. "No, he didn't come," she said, adding a perfectly timed, "Fuck him." The audience roared.

She spoke honestly about playing her pain for laughs. "It's really funny that people laugh," she said, "because I just see blood on the page."

 I can't wait. What do you want to read next?

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