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I absolutely loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette,  so I was excited to read Maria Semple‘s latest novel, Today Will Be Different. Eleanor Flood, the protagonist, was the animation director on an edgy TV show. She does freelance illustration in Seattle; she has a book deal for a graphic novel (which is embedded in Today Will Be Different) based on her childhood, but it’s eight years overdue. Her husband, Joe, is a famous hand surgeon who works with the Seahawks. They have a son, Timby, who applies makeup when he thinks his mother isn’t looking, and a dog, Yo-Yo. She knows her life would be the envy of most people, but she’s at loose ends, feeling middle aged, useless, and lost.

For one thing, she hasn’t seen her sister Ivy in years, because of her controlling, unhinged brother-in-law. For another, she gets the sense that Joe is up to something. On a morning when she vows that her day will be different — she’ll be her “best self” — she instead ends up on a madcap adventure around Seattle, with Timby, who says he has a stomach ache but is really being bullied at school, and Yo-Yo, at least part of the time, in tow.

It’s impossible not to root for Eleanor — who among us hasn’t meant to be our best selves, and found it perpetually impossible? And if you enjoyed Semple’s gentle but persistent humorous critique of upper middle class privileged angst in her earlier work, you’ll laugh at it again here. But Today Will Be Different, like Where’d You Go Bernadette, isn’t just wacky and fun, it has a deep vein of emotional, and this time even spiritual, truth to explore. It’s a book about love in many forms, and about being who we are in a world that constantly tempts us to be otherwise. And in Eleanor’s case, it’s about healing from a past that comes back to stir up her psyche no matter how much she tries to let it go, or sometimes, to banish it.

“Deep down, Eleanor knew she must have been born a warmer soul. She wasn’t meant to be so self reliant.” And deep down we know that as much as we may giggle at her exploits, and roll our eyes at some of the ridiculous ways people in this book act, Eleanor’s warm soul will lift her out of the funk she’s in. We get the sense that Eleanor will let herself rely on Timby and Joe and even Yo-Yo, who love her and know they can count on her even when she’s “mean,” one of Timby’s frequent complaints. I won’t tell you the plot twists or how things end, but I will say that despite everything, readers come to the final page feeling love can prevail over just about anything, even Eleanor Flood. And don’t we all need a little reminding of that?

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At a holiday party, one of our guests asked people to name their 6 favorite books ever, and my eighteen year old included I’m a Stranger Here Myself. So as you begin to read this please know I am predisposed to think highly of Bill Bryson and whatever he writes, even though I tried hard when I was events coordinator at Gibson’s Bookstore to book him for an author event and couldn’t get an answer, let alone a booking.

I was actually a little afraid to pick up his newest book, which revisits some of the sites Bryson wrote about in Notes From a Small Island. That’s another favorite around our house, and sequels, which The Road to Dribbling sort of is, rarely hold up in my experience to the original. But this book is classic Bryson — that perfect mixture of laser-like cultural critique laced with laugh-out-loud wit, gentle self-deprecating humor, slightly squirm-inducing naughtiness (suggesting young litterers should be killed, for example), and an autodidact’s erudite appreciation for wherever he’s visiting, clearly explained so the reader is infected with Bryson’s own curiosity and admiration. Plus, he is openly admiring of so much.

I’ve heard people grumble that Bryson just gripes a lot (or bitches, as he’d call it) and profits off the unfortunate fools he lampoons in his writing. But I’ve always felt Bryson is generously affectionate where its due. Being unfailingly willing to call bullshit when he sees it, and to expose assholes or idiots, is a longstanding literary tradition, and more recently, keeps millions of people in America actively engaged with current events via programs like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight. Without this potent mix of fearless, intelligent commentary and sometimes inappropriate but always spirit-lifting humor, surely we’d all have lost our minds by now.

So if you like books that make you snort with laughter into your pillow as you vainly attempt not to awaken your spouse,* this book is for you. If you like books that will teach you something you had no idea you were missing (I’d never heard of Oliver Heaviside, or Motopia, or the species Homo Antecessor, or a good many other things), this book is for you. If you like books that fill you with a sense of warm recognition of our common humanity, our common intolerance for officially sanctioned idiocy, and our common appreciation for kind-heartedness and generosity of spirit, this book is for you. And for the record, I no longer book events at Gibson’s so I am not just sucking up. But Mr. Bryson, if you read this, the events coordinator who succeeded me is named Elisabeth, the store owner is Michael, and they’d be delighted to have you.

*I met Bill Bryson at a book signing in Seattle in 1999 or 2000, when he was touring for In A Sunburned Country. When he signed my copy of I’m a Stranger Here Myself, I told him I’d brought my whole family to the reading because the children wanted to see this man who caused their mother to laugh so much that she shook their father awake when she read at night. My son was about 8 at the time and was supremely impressed that Bryson read a passage of his book which included the word “fuck.” He thought Bryson was brilliant then, and he still does.

 

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What a complete hoot this book is. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially because the Computer Scientist, my brother, and family friends worked or still work at Microsoft. We lived in Seattle for five years and I can assure you that Maria Semple‘s send-ups are hilariously spot-on.

Semple satirizes (affectionately, I think) Seattle’s many recognizable quirks. The large population of the newly well-off. Geeky outdoorsy-ness. The weird juxtaposition of political correctness, a publicly professed creed of “niceness,” and nimbyism. The blackberries that cannot be defeated even when torn out with special equipment. The competitive private school culture, combined with a desire to keep kids “real.” The strange combination of wealth and consumptionism with DIY spirit and zealous affirmation of “groundedness.” And she seasons it all with cultural and geographic references too numerous to recount.

But I digress. Enjoyable as it was for me to recognize these things, the book is funny and smart whether you’ve been to Seattle or not. No matter where you live it would be hard not to laugh at Semple’s trenchant portrayal of dysfunctional families, social aspirations, and neighborhood feuding, made more public by modern technology.

Where’d You Go Bernadette is about a pair of eccentric geniuses: Bernadette Fox, a MacArthur genius architect whose masterwork was destroyed in L.A. twenty years earlier by a vindictive neighbor she’d clashed with and Elgin Branch, TED talk star, workoholic inventor geek pioneering mind-activated robotics at Microsoft. Bernadette and Elgin have one daughter, Bee, born with a heart defect but brilliant and about to go off to boarding school, as her parents both did.

Bee asks for a trip to Antarctica to celebrate. Bernadette’s unhappiness with Seattle, with the privileged “gnats” as she calls the school mothers who don’t like her, and her social awkwardness come to a head. She hires a “virtual assistant” in India to handle the trip details and plots how to get out of going.

Meanwhile Elgin misinterprets his wife’s loopy behavior as either mental illness or drug addiction and plans an intervention. Several hilarious misunderstandings later, Bernadette disappears and Bee tries to find her. That final section of the novel, where Bee tells her version of things, is wonderful. It tempers the satire a bit with real emotional depth and the reveals the truth beneath the zaniness — this novel is a love story.

Every unhinged thing Bernadette does is grounded in her fierce love for Bee, who thrives because of it. Elgin and Bernadette have lost their way with each other but readers sense that beneath it all, they also have an unbreakable bond.  And they both love their inner worlds, the private creative processes that makes them such brilliant and innovative people.

Semple’s assertion, it seems, is that people need to be who they are, and society — especially privileged society —   beats down the very people it holds up as geniuses when they find themselves unable to conform. She also spotlights the everyday in-your-face rudeness we’ve come to accept. From entitled neighbors to pushy panhandlers to opinionated alpha-Moms, Bernadette can’t take it anymore; ironically that makes her part of the rudeness cycle.

But there’s redemption in this novel, and even nasty neighbor Audrey, Bernadette’s gnat nemesis, has a major change of heart. By the end of the book, much of the messiness is resolved, and you get a feeling things are going to work out. I love that it’s neat  but not too neat — Semple let’s us come to our own conclusions.

Bee is just a terrific character — still a kid, precocious but never without the innocence and emotion of a real middle-school girl.  And like many smart, mature kids, still very attached to the small rituals and touchstones of childhood, things the adults around her don’t necessarily see or appreciate. Few authors get “tweens” right and Semple does it perfectly, I think.

And I loved the form of this book, which is perfect for the story. Semple uses regular narrative, email, reports, presentations, faxes, transcripts — a melange of the material at-hand in her characters’ lives, like Bernadette’s architecture (her most famous work is a house made entirely of items sourced within 20 miles), like the former girls’ school partially converted into a residence where Bernadette, Elgin, & Bee live, like a community. There’s a very good reason for this hodge-podge which I won’t give away.

Seattle, Semple also reminds us, is not always as cloudy as you’d expect. Semple lets the best bits peek through. Again I think her specific city is just an example of all the hassles of modern life – get past the superficial, loud, overly-busy bits and you can make real connections.

Which after all is what the best books help us do.

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