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Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette'

By Maria Semple
Literary fiction
December 2012
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316256193
WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE could have gone in so many directions. Maria Semple's novel, told from various points of view and in emails, letters and journal entries, starts off in full-blown, glorious snark mode. The parents of a snooty Seattle private school's children have their knickers in a twist over the antics of fish-out-of-water Bernadette. She is a reclusive, misanthropic famed architect and mother of talented prodigy Bee. Dad is a Microsoft muckymuck who has one of the most-viewed TED talks ever.

Bee wants to see Antarctica as a graduation present. Because Bernadette cannot face people, she hires a virtual assistant in India to make the arrangements. Below their house, which is really a rundown former school, Audrey Griffin wants to hold a fundraising party for Bee's school. (Her son also attends.) The goal is to attract the best Mercedes parents, like one of the Pearl Jam band members. It doesn't have to be Eddie Vedder.

Audrey is a gnat to Bernadette. She demands Bernadette remove the rambling blackberry bushes from her yard before the party. The fact that it's winter and the hillside will lose its cover to battle erosion do not occur to Audrey. Then again, she's also the kind of parent who wonders what the principal is doing looking in her son's locker. After all, "don't they have locks on them? Isn't that why they're called lockers?"

Bee's dad, Elgin, is up against a tight deadline at work. His new admin assistant, Soo-Lin, is another prep school gnat, um, parent. Soo-Lin is a divorced single mother who attends Victims Against Victimhood meetings. Complications will, of course, ensue as lives become entangled.

It all gets to be too much for Bee's mother. So she disappears two days before Christmas. And Bee decides to find her. That's when the novel hits its true stride and the reader discovers its deep heart.

As the story begins, the satire and snark are delicious. Semple began the novel after moving to the unknown territory known as Seattle, and to someone who has watched the pretentiousness present in some Emerald City residents from the other side of the Cascades since before Microsoft, Starbucks and grunge rock existed, she is spot on.

But like all great novelists who use various forms of humor, Semple knows when to add layers of emotional depth. Bernadette has good reasons to do what she does, and few of the characters turn out to be as cartoonish as they may appear at first. There is a great set piece of sorts when the novel changes tone, a long letter Bernadette writes to a former colleague about her life as a MacArthur grant-winning architect and the birth of Bee. His response to the letter is nearly the same as the one that Semple received as she adapted to a city she now loves, after Bernadette has poured out her heart for pages:

Are you done? You can't honestly believe any of this nonsense. People like you must create. If you don't create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society."

To see what Bernadette does next is not revealed until the end, and there is far too much tell rather than show in the revealing, but it is still a resolution that rings true emotionally and fits these characters just right.

Best of all, Bee is a delightful creation. A brilliant, intrepid daughter could be too twee a character, but Semple keeps Bee from going too far into that territory. Instead, Bee is a fully realized character who just happens to be the youngest of the main ones in this novel. And, just as Semple handles the various voices who relate the narrative, she also allows more than one main character to have her own journey of discovery.

These are characters worth knowing, and their story is one well worth discovering.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reposted with permission

Monday, December 10, 2012

Review: 'The Wandering Falcon'

By Jamil Ahmad
Literary fiction
October 2012 (trade paperback edition)
ISBN: 9781594486166                                                                                                                            

Most of what I know about the part of the world where Pakistan and Afghanistan meet is through Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King. So you know I don't know much.

But I do know that when Daniel Dravot and Peachy tried to use their guns and wits to conquer the tribes in this mountainous, inhospitable region, the tribal culture initially worked for them, then against them.

This view of tribal culture, in which the individual may endure but does not achieve dominance, is but one of the conclusions reached reading another book that takes part in that high corner of the world. Jamil Ahmad, at age 80, published his first work with The Wandering Falcon after spending years in the area.

It isn't quite accurate to call The Wandering Falcon a novel. It is part fable, part character study of a way of life rather than one singular character and part a setting down in writing tales that have probably been told there for years.

There is a man in the book who is a wandering falcon. His parents are unfortunate lovers; she's the daughter of a tribal leader and he's a nobody. They ran away together, finding refuge for several years near an army fort. When her father's people eventually find them, the outcome is not good. Their child, the falcon of the story, survives. He's passed from mentor to mentor over the years. What he learns and how he became what he did is not told, however. He disappears for pages and pages.
But in between those appearances, the various stories provide a few clues as to how the people of the region may view life.

In one of the early stories, a tribe comes to grips with the newly enforced border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, not sure if everyone will be able to get across as they move their few animals to better grazing. The tribe's leader tries to negotiate safe passage with an army official, unsuccessfully. As he leaves, he adjusts his cloak. As he does so, his son realizes that the cloak is now an "ordinary covering for an old man". The "general" has lost his authority.

The general later reminds his son about a time they met another old man, who said the secret to his long life was eating raw onions:

What he told you that day was the secret of life itself. One lives and survives only if one has the ability to swallow and digest bitter and unpalatable things. We, you and I, and our people shall live because there are only a few among us who do not love raw onions.

As bitter as life is for the menfolk, it's worse for the women. They are property to be kidnapped, sold for a pound of opium, to be treated worse than a bear that does tricks. Malala Yousufzai would know the attitudes here well.

In all these stories within the book, the boy who is known as the falcon either does not appear or makes only a brief appearance. He could be likened to a bird that views the actions of these characters from a distance and without passion.

One character, a magistrate, in Ahmad's tales is disdainful of anything that is not a cold, hard fact. Telling rationales through fables, for example, serves no purpose in his world view. "Fables have no use here," he says. "Can a fable explain a death?"

Of course a fable can explain a death, a way of life and the dying of a way of life. Which is, perhaps, more to the point of The Wandering Falcon than anything else.

The Wandering Falcon is a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The winner will be named Jan. 25 in Jaipur. Also on the shortlist are The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam, River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif, The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash, translated by Jason Grunebaum, and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission
Note: A version of this review first appeared on Daily Kos.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

In Progress: 'The Rivals'

Daisy Whitney's first YA novel, The Mockingbirds, was a terrific novel on many levels: Alex attends a private school where adults look the other way when wrongs are committed. When she is date-raped, she discovers there is a vigilante group on campus, the Mockingbirds, that stands up for students who have been harmed.

The novel dealt with date rape, with victims not being believed, with friends and strangers sticking up for doing right by victims and with teens knowing what the right thing to do is, even if the adults around them do not. All of this was done in a fast-moving plot with complex characters to care about in a believable set-up.

The follow-up novel, The Rivals, deepens the stakes when Alex, now head of the Mockingbirds, is told about a possible prescription drug abuse ring. Students may be doping up to try to win a competition.

The complexity of the situation includes Alex not sure about who to tell what, including her fellow Mockingbirds and friends, as well as who to believe as she starts to ask questions. Early on, the who-to-trust aspect and how it affects justice is brought up as Alex wonders what's going on:

For a second, it strikes me as odd that two students here are so worried they'd be implicated that they'd come to me for help. But then again, maybe that's the point -- maybe they are the nameless victims we're supposed to protect. Maybe they're the ones who could get hurt by what's happening. But even so, I have to make sure I'm not being played.

Layers of deception will have to be unwrapped before this novel is done, methinks. So far, The Rivals is another winner.