Today Will Be Different

9780316467063_p0_v2_s192x300    No matter how miserable or crazy your life might be, Maria Semple manages to make her characters’ problems worse, and in Today Will Be Different – more poignant.  Eleanor Flood, a quirky graphic artist married to a serious hand surgeon, battles her past and struggles with her present. Of course, she wins, as do all Semple’s idiosyncratic heroines.

The story unfolds in one day, packed with more trouble and good intentions than most of us have in a year. The theme, however rings true: how many of us wake up each morning determined to turn over a new leaf and reform our ways. Despite the one day format, Semple delivers Eleanor’s backstory and reveals her past demons through her interaction with other characters. As she tracks down her husband who is missing from his office, Eleanor has a series of missteps.  She sabotages the opening of an art exhibit, steals a set of keys from a parent at her son’s school, loses her contract for an unfinished graphic novel based on her childhood, and more.  Sample was the screenwriter for several successful television series, and she packs a season’s episodes in this book.

For fans of Where’d You Go Bernadette?, this story is also set in Seattle.  Those blackberry bushes reappear, Eleanor’s son Timby attends the infamous Galer Street School, and Semple can’t resist a few disparaging remarks about Amazon “squids.”

Although the plot jumps around and takes a while to get settled into the story,  this latest Semple offering will have you laughing, nodding in agreement at her pithy views on life, and hopeful – maybe life will be different – tomorrow.

Aquarium by David Vann

9780802123527_p0_v3_s260x420Hard to read but compelling – in Aquarium David Vann tells the coming of age story of Caitlin, a sensitive and lonely twelve-year-old who lives in near poverty with her mother, a construction worker, in Seattle.  The story seems innocuous at first as Vann describes Caitlin’s after school visits to the Seattle Aquarium, and laces the pages with beautiful pictures of the fish Caitlin has befriended.  Throughout the story, Vann offers philosophical notes attached to this underwater world, and creates analogies to human action.

Caitlin befriends an elderly man who shares her love of fish, and they meet every day until he asks to meet her mother.   When his true identity is revealed, the plot turns to darkness and cruelty.  As much as Caitlin’s mother struggles in life – laboring at a job she hates, barely making enough money to pay the rent, angry at the world for her misery – she has shielded Caitlin from her past and the seething rage she keeps hidden.  But when this man reenters her life, her fury is released – along with scenes of horrible abuse and shocking inhumanity.  These descriptions are difficult to read.

Caitlin cautiously navigates around her mother’s anger, and even manipulates her into changes for the better.  At the same time, Caitlin is awakening to her own sexuality, and tells some of the story in flashback – reassuring the reader that she does survive.

Alaskan David Vann is a new author for me, and I requested this book from the library after reading a thoughtful and intriguing review from a fellow reviewer.  In researching some of Vann’s other books, I found references to more dark and dreary lives, and a penchant for family violence.  Aquarium, with its psychological heaviness, is described as “far more civilized” than his other work.  Perhaps with a young pre-teen protagonist, he has toned the wretchedness down a little – but not much.   Aquarium is a powerful and heart-wrenching story, but not for everyone.


A Sudden Light

9781439187036_p0_v3_s260x420Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain was one of my favorite books, and I kept waiting for another of his quirky stories with a philosophical edge.  In A Sudden Light, Garth involves the reader in a debate of sustaining natural resources in the Pacific Northwest vs land development, while cleverly disguising his mission in a charming tale of a family legacy.  Just in time for Halloween, the story also involves ghosts – some real, some contrived – and a fourteen year old hero who saves the day.  For book club fans, Stein includes a list of questions at the end, and enough fodder in the characters and plot to sustain a lively discussion –  a sample to tease you: “How do we reconcile the differences between what we see and what we know?”

Trevor and his father, Jones, bankrupt from his boat-building business and recently separated from his English wife, travel to the old family home, a nineteenth century estate in the hills of Seattle, to convince Trevor’s grandfather to sell the valuable land and the crumbling house.  Jones with his sister Serena are determined to move their father, who has shown signs of dementia, into a retirement home. They plan to sell the valuable property to developers who will subdivide the land and build “McMansions.”

With its secret stairs and hidden panels in the walls, the house is an ideal place for a haunting.  Ghosts of past inhabitants are frequently heard or seen, including Trevor’s grandmother and one of his great-grandfather’s sons, Ben, a passionate environmentalist who swore to atone for his family’s destruction of the Northwest forests for profit.  Trevor is torn – he wants the money from the sale of the land to get his parents back together but he is also determined to help Ben, an Oscar Wilde version of the Canterville Ghost who frequently appears to  him to champion the return of the property to nature.

Stein’s descriptions of the peace brought by the natural land, the trees, the birds – are all reminiscent of Thoreau and John Muir, whom he invokes frequently.  He delivers the beauty of the surroundings with thoughtful metaphors – ““hummingbirds are to humans as humans are to trees.”  But his story focuses on the family drama as he reveals their history with Trevor’s dreams, overheard conversations, and reminiscences from Serena and Trevor’s grandfather.

The ending is not predictable but satisfying, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book; but then I have a penchant for a well told romantic ghost story with pithy phrases.

My Review of: The Art of Racing in the Rain


9781451627930_p0_v2_s260x420Carol Cassella combines her expertise as a medical doctor with mystery and romance in her novel – Gemini.  Although the title suggests twins, and the author’s bio on the back flap notes that she is the mother of two sets of twins, the resolution of the mystery was not predictable.

The love story involves Bo, a good-looking rich kid with a strange medical issue, who falls in love with Raney, a talented artist from the other side of the tracks.  Bo disappears abruptly from her life twice; the second time, Raney marries her boyfriend, a hard-working and loving Filipino fisherman.  All is slowly revealed as Raney lies in a coma, initially as a Jane Doe, in the intensive care unit of Seattle’s Beacon Hospital, under the care of Dr. Charlotte Reese.  Charlotte and her boyfriend, Eric,  a writer who is researching genetic abnormalities for a new book, have their own problems; both have ticking clocks – she wants a baby and he is in remission after three brain surgeries.   Eventually they are tied to the woman in the coma, and her 12 year-old son.

Heavy with medical terminology (the author is an anesthesiologist),  the story alternates between Charlotte’s internal conflicts as she tries to save her patient and  the backdrop of a young Raney and Bo as they grow into adulthood.  As the omniscient reader,  you will know more about Raney that Charlotte does, as the plot quickly escalates to finding someone who can take responsibility for Raney’s unconscious body.   The surprises are predictable as the lives unwind, but the resolution of  paternity has a unique medical explanation that had me googling the possibilities – yes, it could be true.

Gemini is a fast suspenseful page-turner, with enough plot twists to keep me reading quickly to the end.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

9780316204279_p0_v1_s260x420Being a misunderstood genius and living among fools can be stressful – and funny. In a rollicking narrative that combines emails, report cards, and the voice of a certified MacArthur genius, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? creates an adventure about the consequences of feeling misplaced. Stereotyping Seattle with Microsoft, Starbucks, and rain is easy, but Semple cleverly uses this base to satirize the obvious while weaving the story around Bernadette’s life. Semple was a writer for comedy shows – Mad About You, Arrested Development – with a brand of humor that connected to me. As I was laughing, sometimes I wondered how she had gotten inside my head.

Elgin Branch, a “rock-star” at Microsoft, has invented Samantha, a robot who can be directed through a microchip band-aid on the forehead (similar to a true and recent news story about brain implants in the disabled that manipulate robotic arms). His wife, Bernadette, an acclaimed architect who invented the greening of buildings, won the MacArthur award for her twenty-mile house (all materials used available within 20 miles of construction). After an incident in LA (no spoilers here), she shifts her focus to raising her brilliant daughter, Bee. Bee’s Christmas wish is to go to Antarctica, and the adventure begins.

Bernadette would not describe herself as an introvert, but the maddening neighbor who insists on the demolition of blackberry bushes, the parents who ostracize anyone who does not volunteer at the school, and the slow-moving traffic can sometimes be too much for her East Coast mentality; idiots are everywhere. Feeling overwhelmed and alone, Bernadette hires an online service and befriends her virtual assistant. After a series of mishaps involving the “gnats” at school, the FBI, and a well-meaning therapist, Bernadette excuses herself, goes to her bathroom, and disappears. The incident is later explained (no magic or Harry Potterisms here) and the resolution is one of the funniest in the book.

The plot lines are complicated but never confusing, and in the search for Bernadette, I could not help cheering her escape, as well as hoping she would be found (again, no spoilers – you’ll have to read to find out where she went).