Thursday, January 17, 2013

Where'd You Go Bernadette: A Novel

by Maria Semple, Little, Brown and Company, December 2012 
Lots of fun, a beach read in the best sense.

This wonderfully satiric novel is set in present day Seattle.  The Fox family – husband Elgin a widely successful Microsoft exec, daughter Bee (short for Balakrishna)a precocious 14 year old and mother Bernadette a genius architect suffering from  acrophobia – live an unorthodox life style in a deteriorating former girls convent school.  As the novel opens we are presented with the fact that Bernadette has mysteriously disappeared a few days before Christmas.  The story then jumps back in time to about 6 weeks before her disappearance.  Using emails, memos, FBI documents and first person narration by Bee we get to meet this widely funny cast of characters and get the story.
In a nutshell Bernadette, an award winning young architect, has retreated to her home and is unable to work because of her acrophobia.  While loved by her husband and idolized by her daughter, Bernadette has retreated into her own quirky world.  She employs a person assistant Manjula who resides in India to complete any tasks that would require her to leave her home.  Bernadette is in constant conflict with neighbors and helicopter parents at her daughter’s elementary school.  Her husband is so engrossed with his Microsoft project he fails to notice the spiraling out of control issues at home. Ecology issues arise when the next door neighbor demands that Bernadette remove blackberry vines that encroach on her property.  Things get wild after that! I don’t want to tell too much of this plot as it sounds so absurd but is in fact laugh out loud funny.  Bee using information that is slowly revealed to her in many forms works to try and find her mother. 
I liked so many things about this story – it unwinds at a fast pace, the characters are fully drawn and likeable, the unconventional methods used to tell the story, the portrait of Seattle, the Microsoft corporate culture so realistically drawn -  but mostly I liked that is was such a fun book.  In some deft plot mastery the author manages to pull together the minor plots that seemed extraneous to the story for a great ending.  I read afterwards that the author Maria Semple was a screen writer for Arrested Development; you can see this story presented as a TV series (think Portlandia set in Seattle).  Lots of fun, a beach read in the best sense.  

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

by Jonathan Evison, Algonquin Books, August 2012 

...definitely recommended

This is the story of Ben Benjamin, a 39 year old broken man.  He has lost everything, his home, his marriage, his job and often his will to live.  Ben, long a stay-at-home dad who hasn’t been in the work force for 11 years has taken a home nursing course (hence the title) and is employed as a caregiver to Trevor a 19 year old  who has late-stage Duchene muscular dystrophy.  Ben and Trevor develop an unusual but effective relationship that culminates in a road trip to see Trevor’s father in Las Vegas.  As the road trip story unfolds the author intersperses it with a recount of the events leading up to the tragedy that happened some years previously to Ben’s family.

This is a sad book not doubt about it, but oddly it is also funny, warm and ultimately redemptive.  I don’t want to give any of the key plot details because I really enjoyed the pace with which the author told this story.  You know bad things happen but somehow rolling them out as the author does is important in this story.  The writing is very good, no wasted words in the telling of this story. The dialogue between Trevor and Ben seems so natural, it just flows along.  During the road trip Ben and Trev pick up a couple of characters who enrich the story, particularly Trev’s love interest. 

It would be hard to categorize this book – part road trip tale, part coming of age story, part literary fiction – but it is definitely one I’d recommend.  There are enough thought provoking issues in this story that would make it excellent for book club discussions.  I read this author’s last book West of Here and wasn’t a big fan, but I really enjoyed this one – just proves you shouldn’t give up too soon on a new author.

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume Three: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965

by Willaim Manchester and Paul Reid, read by Clive Chafer, Blackstone Audio, November 2012, 53 hrs.

...excellent conclusion to a great historical bio

I read William Manchester’s volume one and volume two of the Churchill biography when they were first published in the 1980s.  They both were tremendous books, majestic in scope and marvelous in riveting detail - in my opinion the quintessential biography of a historical giant Winston Churchill.  With Manchester’s illness and subsequent death I never thought there would be a final installment in this series that could compare to the first two.  I was wrong, Paul Read has completed the trilogy with the story of Churchill’s life from 1940 until his death in 1965 and it is excellent.

The book opens with a reintroduction to the Churchill personality, quirks and all.  He is presented as a Victorian gentleman (never drove a car or cooked a meal) in an emerging modern world.  Once the stage has been set the story begins as Churchill accepts the prime ministership in truly Britain’s darkest hour 1940.  Alone, with her army in retreat and the island isolated only Churchill through his words and actions rallied the British to face Hitler and overcome the long odds in front of them.  The story chronicles WWII from a British perspective.  Churchill’s total involvement in every facet of the war is fascinating, he dictates military strategy in one breath and takes on the intricacies of food rationing in the next.

Churchill’s understanding (or lack thereof) of the post war expectations of the British people is outlined.  His loss of the prime ministership late in the war because the public did not want him leading the post war economic comeback is another intriguing chapter in this story.  The story continues as the war ends and issues related to the USSR and communist aggression takes center stage.  Here also Churchill has recognized the threat well before most of the rest of the national leaders.  Interspersed with public events are Churchill’s relations with his wife and children.  He is a true disaster in this arena oblivious to anyone’s needs but his own.  The prodigious amount of alcohol consumed each day really makes me wonder how this man functioned in such an effective way.  Churchill’s public career after the mid 1950’s is essentially concluded although he continues to write until his death in 1965.

No part of this story is as exciting as the events in 1940-41.  It is not an exaggeration to say that if the British had not had Churchill they would have made a separate peace with Hitler freeing him to conquer the rest of Europe and all of Russia, radically changing the course of the twentieth century.  The author takes the reader inside of this story by providing the detail that brings it to life.

I listened to the audio version of this biography.  It was read by Clive Chafer and he was an inspired choice for this work.  When he was reading from Churchill’s speeches you felt like you were listening to the great man himself.  The audio version is not for the faint of heart, it is 53 hours long!  It worked for me because I had a lot of car travel to do in December so I got well immersed in it, but normally that would be a time commitment I’d be reluctant to give.

So in summary if you’ve read the first two volumes in this series, you will be well satisfied with the conclusion.  If you haven’t read volumes one and two and you are a history devotee get a move on and read them!

I listened to a copy of the audio version of this book provided by the publisher.