The Red Car


In reviewing The Red Car for the New York Times – Fast and Furious –  Daniel Handler noted “There is, now, a literary term for a book you can’t stop reading that makes you stop to think.  It is “The Red Car.”  And that’s just what happened to me when I read it.


After finishing The Red Car, I felt like Leah, the main character, riding in a car with its own mind – taking me on its own journey – for my own good.  My first thoughts were not to review but to remember.  You might want to skip this “aside” and go straight to the review below – but like Leah riding in the red car, I just had to write it.

I remember waking up one day and noticing I was not wearing earrings.  When had I stopped?   Then I remembered; it was when my baby took to pulling them off my ears and I worried about her swallowing them.  Now she was grown and had pierced ears, but I still forgot to look at my own ears.

It was a wake-up call, as though I had been someone else all those years, dreaming through life, pretending to have it all together and rushing around trying to keep everyone happy – my daughter, my husband, my dissertation committee, my students, my mother.  It never occurred to me to keep myself happy.

Much later, it happened again.  This time I was older and about to enter another decade – without the responsibilities of parenthood and career.  I decided to get my ears pierced – a tribute to five decades of meeting expectations.  For a while, I was happy, until once again I fell into the mode of responsibility.  It still seems difficult to make decisions only for myself.  I could blame my Catholic schooling or my strict Italian father.  I could wonder what if, as we all do periodically, especially when life seems unbearable.  I should just be grateful – so many have a much poorer life.

Maybe someday someone will leave me a red car to jolt me.


9781631492334_p0_v8_s192x300   Marcy Dermansky’s short novel – The Red Car – will lead you on a wild ride, but possibly leave you with an urging to reexamine your life.  When her former boss dies and leaves her red sports car and some money to Leah, a budding novelist, Leah revisits her old life, discovers strands of unfinished business and the courage to find her own happiness.  A quick read, The Red Car offers a philosophic look to sleepwalking through life,  with the same quirky, humorous, yet disarming grounding as Where’d You Go Bernadette?  It’s no wonder Maria Semple highly recommended this new book.  Read it in a sitting, but be prepared to think about it longer.

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.

Adult Books That Appeal to Younger Readers – Alex Awards

UnknownThe American Library Association annually awards the “Alex” to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.    The books are not necessarily easy reading, and often include coming of age themes, dysfunctional families, and sometimes aliens.  Among this year’s winners is Brewster by Mark Slouka.

Winners for 2013 included some of my favorites. Recommend them to your favorite teen or read them yourself, if you haven’t already. You can find my reviews by typing in the title to the “Search” on this website.

  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Among this year’s winners, two have gone on my reading list:

  • Relish by Lucy Knisley – a graphic novel telling the author’s life around food, complete with family recipes.
  • The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence – a boy’s adventure after he is hit on the head by a meteorite.
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Maria Semple’s Favorite Books – A List to Check Out

UnknownIn the New York Times By the Book  interview, Maria Semple, author of  Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” mentions Barbara Trapido’s “Brother of the More Famous Jack” –  out of print but miraculously in my library system.

Her other go-to writers are favorites of mine too (click on the highlighted titles for my reviews):

  • Lorrie Moore – A Gate at the Stairs 
  • Alice Munro – Dear Life 
  • Yasmina Reza – author of the play “Art.”  I remember seeing it, starring Alan Alda, years ago at Ford Theater; available in audio – might be worth listening; more recently she wrote “God of Carnage.”
  • Penelope Lively – How It All Began 
  • Edward St. Aubyn – The Patrick Melrose novels – 5 part series; start with “Never Mind.”
  • Michael Frayn – Skios  
  • Brady Udall – The Lonely Polygamist  

Books to Find:

  • The Keep by Jennifer Egan
  • Glaciers by Alexis Smith
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders
  • All That Is by James Salter

Office Girl is on that list, but after starting it on my Kindle, I decided it was one of those books “I was supposed to like, but didn’t,” and in Semple’s words – I bailed halfway through it.

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).