Book review: ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ by Maria Semple

Whered You Go, BernadetteHas a book ever just delighted you?

I’ve been fortunate to discover a few that would fall into that category, and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette would definitely top that list. From start to finish, I was enchanted by the characters, unusual storyline and hilarious dialogue.

Basically, it’s awesome.

In rainy Seattle, architect Bernadette Fox is raising her daughter, Bee, with husband Elgin Branch in a dilapidated house she can’t stomach fixing since a disastrous, high-profile project many years before. Smart as a whip, Bee is used to her mother’s quirks: her wry humor, for sure, as well as her constant battles with other school parents. And there’s the whole issue of her never wanting to leave the house, you know — a desire that pushes her to hire a virtual assistant to take care of everything down to grocery shopping.

When Bee is promised a trip to Antarctica, Bernadette turns to her assistant to take care of all the details . . . but as secrets are revealed, the trip falls into jeopardy. Before they can decide how to move forward as a family, Bernadette disappears.

Told through a series of emails and Bee’s notes, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is actually flat-out hilarious. Intelligent. Unique. My summary doesn’t do justice to how funny Bernadette is — and to be honest, I saw much of myself in her. Though I’ve been able to stave off agoraphobia so far, I’m quite happy to take care of most tasks online. If I can email instead of calling you, check yo’ email. Heck, I even order pizza online. (I mean, it’s just convenient.)

Bernadette is a really fantastic, multifaceted character — as is Bee, her hilarious daughter. Elgin plays less of a role in the drama than one might expect, but his behavior is also a catalyst for all that’s set in motion before Antarctica. Bee does most of the narrating, though Bernadette’s emails are at the center of much of the chaos. I loved them both.

It’s hard to explain Where’d You Go, Bernadette except to say it was an enchanting, entertaining, wholly different novel — one I enjoyed from start to finish. Even months later (how did it take me so long to talk about this one?!), I can vividly recall passages and crazy scenes.

If you can get your paws on the audio version, I highly recommend it. Narrator Kathleen Wilhoite does an outstanding job as the many folks populating this great story, and I loved her interpretation of Bee. Though I’m sure I would have had a grand ol’ time with the print version, too, listening to the story was a true pleasure.


4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio version borrowed from my local library

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Book chat: ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green

The Fault In Our StarsSo I finished John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars on Sunday. I bought it last week in anticipation of a long weekend away as a “treat” to myself, insofar as a book about kids with cancer can be a “treat.”

Also, despite loving my Kindle for years now, I still feel weird paying for e-books? I mostly read review copies or freebies or library loans. I guess that’s a terrible thing to admit . . . I mean, it’s just that they’re digital. Yes, I do pay for plenty of things I cannot physically hold, but I guess I’m just crotchety and still struggling to grasp the concept of paying real money for things that feel un-real.

Anyway. Clearly a post for another day.

The Fault In Our Stars has been on my radar for years due to its reputation as a tearjerker, I suppose. Sometimes I crave a good cry and don’t mind a depressing novel; they can be quite beautiful, after all. Plus, this is penned by Green, Great Lord of the Book/Young Adult World, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books. He’s darn witty and insightful.

Also, I saw him speak at the National Book Festival in 2012 . . . and yeah, he’s totally cute. Just feel that, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that.

Anyway. (Man, I’m a mess today.) Back to the actual book, friends. I have lots of thoughts about it, but . . . they’re scattered, disjointed. I went into this novel knowing it had been hyped into oblivion but is also loved fiercely by many readers — I mean, it’s been rated more than 1 million times on Goodreads.

One. Million. Times.

It’s hard to pick up a book you’ve heard so much about without rampant expectations. Like, for example, I expected to cry — a lot. I mean, the basic plot? Two teenage cancer survivors meet at a support group and fall in love. You know something ain’t going to end well, right? Even the title suggests it.

To my shock, I’ve managed to avoid spoilers all this time — no small feat given its 2012 publication date. And the accompanying movie released in June, which I’m now exceptionally eager to see.

So I won’t ruin it for you, either. Trust me.

But back to my Feelings. I loved Augustus because yeah, I think we’re supposed to. Almost engineered to. He’s cool, thoughtful, romantic, sweet . . . all attributes I typically love in a dude. Gus is also wise beyond his years — something that comes with having stared down death, I suppose — and utterly devoted to Hazel, our narrator, who is herself living with a cancer that actively decimates her lungs. Hazel requires constant oxygen delivered via a tank, her breathing shadow, and Gus accepts this.

Gus accepts her. And not just because her chopped-off locks and quiet confidence remind him of actress Natalie Portman.

Green’s tome is a story of life and death. Of life after death, and living well in the face of impending death. Though we all know we’re mortal beings, some of us must confront that fact much earlier than others. It’s awful, but it’s the truth. The subject matter is understandably heavy, and even in its buoyant moments — those sparkly moments of first love, as light as the champagne the two share — it’s there. The gravity weighing them down, the illness with its claws sunk deep into them both.

And yet, they love. They are. They will be.

The portrayal of Hazel’s parents, who are themselves fighting the good fight along with their daughter, also felt realistic and heartbreaking. Ditto the experiences of Augustus’ parents and the extended Waters clan. Even the peripheral characters — Isaac, a fellow cancer survivor who loses his sight; Hazel’s best friend, Kaitlyn, a fashionable and free teen who serves as her tenuous and final remaining link to the “healthy” and unbound world — serve a purpose and occasionally provide comedic relief.

There is so much in The Fault In Our Stars that felt both beautifully clear and unbelievably obtuse. I fluctuated between getting lost in Green’s deep thoughts and feeling completely discomfited by them. Our young lovers are both enamored with a fictional book called An Imperial Affliction, and learning the fate of its various characters via its alcoholic author in Amsterdam becomes an obsession for them.

I got it, but I didn’t always get it.

Still. Did I like The Fault In Our Stars? Absolutely. I’ve thought of little else since finishing. It was sad, yes — but also many things in between. I cried a little, but not as I expected to — and the finale wasn’t what I’d anticipated, either . . . in a good way? I think. It splintered me, but I’m still standing.

Though Augustus is obsessed with leaving a lasting mark on the world, The Fault In Our Stars is a powerful reminder that though our time here is limited, the impact we make on others — even if it’s merely one other — is more important. Lasting.

Love can only ever lead to suffering, to separation . . . but it’s worth it.

It has to be.


4 out of 5

Pub: 2012 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Open Road Summer’ by Emery Lord

Open Road Summer 2Though the humid days and sticky nights will soon fade into autumn, there’s still time to enjoy a summer treat — and Emery Lord’s Open Road Summer may well be it.

Life on the road with music superstar Delilah “Dee” Montgomery is always an adventure — especially for Reagan O’Neill, Dee’s childhood best friend. Happy to shimmy away from a troubled year back home in Nashville, Reagan throws herself into keeping Dee happy and energized while trying to block out memories of the last few months.

After a scandal threatens to sully Dee’s deserved “good-girl” image, a scheme to pair her with Matt Finch — a musician who earned fame with his brothers, but is decidedly all grown up — hopes to put a spin on the situation. As Reagan gets to know Matt away from the harsh glare of the spotlight, she realizes there may be more to him — and life — than she’d anticipated.

What I really loved about Open Road Summer was its honest take on first love and friendship. Having a best friend requires nurturing and care just like any other relationship — something Reagan and Dee acknowledge and understand. Though they’re ridiculously tight and always looking out for each other, they fight and fret and have their disagreements, too. They’re like sisters — and as with any dynamic, there are ups and downs.

Still, the bond the teens share is admirable . . . especially as the enter and leave one another’s orbits. As Dee’s honest lyrics and sweet persona catapult her far from their high school, she could have left Reagan behind — but she doesn’t. Though the “scandal” concerning Dee is extremely mild, especially by modern standards, I bought the idea that pairing her with “wholesome” singer Matt Finch would be a positive for them both.

Especially because Matt was pretty swoon-worthy.

I couldn’t read Open Road Summer without picturing Taylor Swift as Dee and Nick Jonas as Matt, which worked for me. Their stories paralleled their famous counterparts enough to create the comparison, but they certainly weren’t copycats. Matt, in particular, is shouldering his own pain alongside Reagan — but being a tough girl and all, she doesn’t want him to know it.

As a narrator, Reagan was the right combination of jaded but hopeful. She puts on a good front, you know, with her rough-and-tumble boyfriends and high heels — but we know she’s secretly striving for connection, just like all of us. Her evolution from damaged to trying was believable and commendable, and I definitely bonded with her and wanted her to succeed.

This is a quick, enjoyable read about hanging on and letting go — and I loved its accurate portrayal of friendship and love. While the ending was hopeful, it wasn’t sappy . . . which I really appreciated given, you know, we are talking about teenagers here. Not to be a cranky Old Married, but honestly — stories about 17-year-olds pledging their undying love sort of provoke epic eye-rolling in me.

But there were no rolled eyes here. Only big grins.

Fans of contemporary young adult novels, tales of first love and stories centered around the rich and famous (but nice!) will find lots to enjoy in Emery Lord’s Open Road Summer. It’s the perfect companion for a late-summer weekend . . . virgin daiquiri not included.

4 out of 5

Pub: April 15, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy provided by publisher via the lovely ladies of Rather Be Reading

Book review: ‘Everybody’s Got Something’ by Robin Roberts

Everybody's Got SomethingTelevision newscaster Robin Roberts has had her share of struggles. Treated for breast cancer in 2007, the “Good Morning America” co-anchor expected to make a full recovery and put her fight behind her . . . until five years later, when she learned she would need a life-saving bone marrow transplant for myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare blood disorder — a side effect from her initial cancer treatment.

Who could blame someone for balking, for shrinking, for retreating inward . . . for asking a distraught “Why me?” To hear Robin tell it, though she faced uncertainty and doubt and did occasionally rail against her situation, she tried to focus on healing.

And Robin is a fighter.

More inspirational than informational, Roberts’ Everybody’s Got Something is her recollection of where she was before, during and after her 2012 transplant — and reads as a “thank you” to the friends, family, coworkers and viewers who bolstered her during a tremendously difficult time.

As she prepares for her transplant and its required isolation, Robin must also come to grips with another pain: the grief of losing her beloved mother, Lucimarian. The love shared between her close-knit family — including Sally-Ann, her bone marrow donor — is the backbone of Robin’s story, and many chapters feature snippets of childhood and the many lessons her mother and father shared with their children.

Though Everybody’s Got Something lacked some of the candor I’d expect given Robin’s difficult situation, I respect her so much as a person and appreciate that she wanted to focus on the positives: the bond her illness further cemented with her family and girlfriend, Amber; the overwhelming, soul-restoring support she received from colleagues, friends and viewers; the strong faith that got her through the darkest of her days.

Robin’s struggles seem to have been buffed clean, smoothed of their most jagged edges — but this is her story. If it’s varnished, I understand . . . and appreciate that, more than anything, Everybody’s Got Something – a popular saying with her mother — is exactly what it purports to be: a reminder that we all face challenges, but need not be defined by them. Readers facing health crises may find it especially comforting.

If you like Robin? Well, you’ll like her book. She’s sincere and humble — and just a darn likeable person. I finished the memoir grateful for her returning strength and hopeful that the future will be a bright one.


3 out of 5

Pub: April 22, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Audio copy borrowed from local library


Review: ‘Good Chinese Wife’ by Susan Blumberg-Kason

Good Chinese WifeGoing into Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife, I’ll confess to wanting to do a little armchair traveling. During a busy summer in which I’ve rarely crossed state lines, the idea of visiting exotic Hong Kong, lovely San Francisco and bustling China was too alluring to deny.

Nevermind that this is, of course, a memoir of a difficult intercultural marriage . . . not exactly light reading.

But powerful reading? Absolutely.

When Susan, a shy Midwesterner in love with Chinese culture, started graduate school in Hong Kong, she quickly fell for Cai, the Chinese man of her dreams. As they exchanged vows, Susan thought she’d stumbled into an exotic fairy tale, until she realized Cai — and his culture — were not what she thought.

In her riveting memoir, Susan recounts her struggle to be the perfect traditional “Chinese” wife to her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. With keen insight and heart-wrenching candor, she confronts the hopes and hazards of intercultural marriage, including dismissing her own values and needs to save her relationship and protect her newborn son, Jake. But when Cai threatens to take Jake back to China for good, Susan must find the courage to stand up for herself, her son, and her future.

Moving between rural China and the bustling cities of Hong Kong and San Francisco, Good Chinese Wife is an eye-opening look at marriage and family in contemporary China and America and an inspiring testament to the resilience of a mother’s love — across any border.

(Summary from Goodreads)

When first we meet Susan, a young American woman studying in Hong Kong, we see her as eager and inexperienced — a lover of Chinese culture who is quickly romanced by fellow student Cai, so handsome and sure. Through innocent, intellectual evening chats and patience, Cai courts Susan — and proposes very quickly. Susan, entranced and bewitched by him, agrees.

From there, it unravels.

Questionable relationships. Porn addiction. Extramarital issues. Abandonment, “peep shows,” detachment. Coldness. Threats. Unemployment. Fear.

Here’s what really works about Good Chinese Wife: Susan gets it. She gets that we may be reading her deeply personal story of a trouble marriage with a critical eye. She knows we may judge, we may disagree, we may shake our hands and wag our fingers. Maybe we’ll say “you should have known.” Susan understands we will not accept all of her choices. Why does she stay when it’s obvious she should run, run, run?

But this Susan — our narrator — is older, wiser, accepting. She’s gazing back at her tumultuous first marriage with a new understanding, and she’s not apologetic about her past. In a matter-of-fact but warm tone, Susan recounts her time with Cai in a way that isn’t truly detached — but makes it clear she’s moved beyond their pain and differences.

At its core, Good Chinese Wife is about a woman who loves a man — one who doesn’t respect or support her. Though she is Jewish-American and he is Chinese, the fault lines in their marriage aren’t entirely due to “cultural differences,” as she once rationalizes. Yes, they hail from separate nations . . . and have entirely different traditions, different values. But as a new wife, Susan works hard to empathize and learn from her husband, accepting his quirks (if you could call a porn addiction a “quirk” . . .) and chooses to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Cai can’t say the same.

Good Chinese Wife is riveting. As outsiders, it may be easy to wonder Why? why? why? Susan would choose to stay with a man who repeatedly and blatantly disrespects her, both through his questionable relationships with others — male and female — and his verbal abuse at home. Cold, silent and brooding, Cai comes across as a dangerously unpleasant man . . . one subject to wild mood swings and threats.

But I got it. I got it. For better or worse, Susan fell in love with him — this tempestuous, mysterious person — and tried to make a life with him, but Cai proved to be someone on whom she could not depend. As they welcomed a son, I cringed at the stunts Cai would pull . . . and the detached, harmful way in which he interacted with his child.

For all the sad, angry moments, this isn’t a negative story — and there were times Good Chinese Wife really sparkled. Susan is incredibly endearing, and I loved the electricity in her voice when she talks about her beloved Hong Kong. Her love for her family is very clear, and she’s incredibly kind — and treated very kindly — by Cai’s parents in Hidden River, who love her and their grandchild as well.

Is Good Chinese Wife about an interracial, intercultural marriage? Yes . . . and no. Though some of Susan and Cai’s issues stem from cultural misunderstandings, of course, it’s far deeper than that. And this isn’t a cautionary tale. By the close, we know Susan bears no malice toward Cai — and having found happiness herself (not a spoiler — in the author bio!), she reflects on their time together in the 1990s very differently these days.

Absorbing, calm and wise, Good Chinese Wife was a memoir I devoured in just a few hours. I felt Susan’s all-encompassing love for her family — and often wanted to simultaneously hug and shake her. Though readers may question her decisions (sometimes I did, too), Susan bravely shares her story in the hope, I think, of inspiring others to stand up for themselves and their families. It’s a thought-provoking memoir, and one I recommend.


4 out of 5!

Pub: July 29, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by publisher


Book review: ‘A Walk in the Woods’ by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the WoodsBill Bryson thinks he knows what to expect when he embarks on a journey to hike the Appalachian Trail — some 2,000 miles, stretching from Georgia to Maine. He knows about the wildlife, the heat, the inevitable exhaustion. He’s aware of the dangers posed by being alone in isolated areas, as well as the potential medical risks. But he’s also in need of something . . . reflection, reconnection, fresh challenges. And in the company of Katz, an old friend, Bryson sets off on a life-changing adventure.

First published in 1998, Billy Bryson’s seminal A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a book I’ve had on my radar for ages — but one I wasn’t eager to pick up. Surprisingly, I had once convinced myself I wasn’t “into” non-fiction, preferring Jane Austen or Emily Giffin to someone like Bryson, but that started to evolve years ago. After loving Cheryl Strayed’s Wild last fall, Bryson’s name kept popping up as a recommendation.

And so at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park, where it’s literally impossible not to be awed by nature, I picked up a copy of A Walk in the Woods to keep me company on our plane ride home.

Excellent choice.

Appalachian Trail by Frank Kehren

Appalachian Trail by Frank Kehren, via Flickr


Known colloquially as the bestselling “bear book” in my family, Bryson’s saga of attempting to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trial — or the A.T. — is a wonderful one. Filled with just enough history and facts to make the story both informative and entertaining, the trademark Bryson wit and style I’ve heard so many describe are on full display.

Bryson never claims to be a great hiker . . . and in fact, he begins his journey a middle-aged man carrying extra weight and more than a little trepidation. Though American, Bryson has spent 20 years in England — and walking the A.T. seems like a great chance to reconnect with his homeland after returning to the U.S. with his family. He’s not afraid to make fun of himself, and he’s certainly not embarrassed to admit his doubts. Bill knows he doesn’t have all the answers and he’s made mistakes, and that’s what makes him such an enjoyable — and trustworthy — narrator.

Bill’s friend Stephen Katz provides much — but certainly not all — of the comic relief in the story, occasionally dragging Bill down but often propelling him forward. Though his identity has come into question in the years since publication, he was a thoughtful friend (and occasional foil) during their joint trek. The story without Katz wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling, and certainly not as funny.

There are blisters. There are bugs. There are hungry days and lonely nights and sweat, sweat, sweat. The driving force of A Walk in the Woodswill they make it? can they really do this? — kept me turning the pages, and it was absolutely the perfect story to read coming back from a national park.

Does the story stand the test of time? Sixteen years have passed since publication, and even longer since the journey itself occurred. Aside from obvious technological changes (finding pay phones in small towns, say, and no mention of the Internet), A Walk in the Woods is pretty evergreen (pun quite intended). Taking a walk then is similar to taking a walk now, though routes can now be carefully planned online or with the help of a GPS in the wild, maybe. Such features weren’t available then.

I breezed through this book in a few hours, wanting so much to stretch my time with two friends on the A.T. Though I’m not outdoorsy in the least, I couldn’t help but finish wanting to dive into the woods myself. Bryson’s enthusiasm for nature is completely contagious. And even if the travel bug bit me long ago, I finished his tale with the overwhelming feeling that there are so many lessons — so much to see — out in our beautiful world.

Thanks, Bill.

4.5 out of 5!

Pub: 1998 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


Book review: ‘The Vacationers’ by Emma Straub

The VacationersA summer getaway to a friend’s swanky pad in lush, fragrant Spain seems like a perfect opportunity for the Posts to reconnect. The family unveils secrets and struggles to move past old hurts to emerge a stronger group after two weeks in the Spanish sun.

Franny and Jim are ostensibly there to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary, but they seem as distant and disconnected as a couple can be. Their children — Sylvia, a spirited young woman, and Bobby, her struggling brother — are there largely under duress, especially as Bobby drags his older girlfriend Carmen along for the ride.

Emma Straub’s The Vacationers is one long, drawn-out drama between dueling spouses and their grown or nearly-grown children. Its praises have been sung by countless media outlets as being the perfect addition to your beach bag, and the Washington Post basically wanted to make out with it. I read that review twice wondering if I’d gone temporarily insane or read an entirely different book, and . . . nope. Same book.

Just a vastly different reaction.

Though smart, irreverent and well-written, I found The Vacationers exceptionally tedious. Depressing. Sad. Basically, it was a bummer — and nothing like I anticipated. Certainly not like my beloved Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Straub’s 2012 work, which was sweeping and atmospheric and lovely.

This was boring. Just: dull.

For me, the book failed mostly due to its unlikeable characters. Franny is a tyrant, wanting to control her world and family and vacation to the point of lunacy. I mean, I got it; I understood why she’d desperately want to feel some sense of power in light of everything happening within her marriage. It made perfect sense. But it certainly wasn’t fun to read about.

Of everyone, I felt the most for Jim — a man haunted and crucified by one incredibly bad decision. I mean, the guy screwed up big time; that’s undeniable. And the coldness between he and Franny seemed realistic and heartbreaking. I felt for both sides, absolutely, but Jim’s suffering was unbearable to watch — rubbernecking at the scene of a tragic accident. I couldn’t wait to get past it.

Oh, there are some tender moments — and Straub is certainly a talented writer. She’s insightful, polished, intuitive; her novels are deceptively easy to read. You’ll sit down for a tiny rest thinking you’ll read just one chapter, and suddenly it’s dark and your spouse is begging you to turn out the light. I never considered abandoning this one, even as I began to roll my eyes. I still cared . . . just not enough.

For as much as I failed to connect with The Vacationers, I appreciated Straub’s way with words and would pick up a future novel. But I didn’t feel guilty about tucking this one into a hotel drawer during my California vacation in May. Hopefully a traveler passing through Three Rivers will have better luck with it than I did . . .


2 out of 5!

ISBN: 1594488452 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by publisher