Friday, November 01, 2013

What we're reading: Prospects for book club

Every time I drop by Buena Vista, Anarda loads me up with books to read. "This one might be good for book club," she says. "You read so fast--why don't you take it home this weekend and see?" Anarda knows that I'd rather read than do most anything else, and takes shameless advantage. Some weeks she guesses better than others, and this week she put together a great array. Here are the first two I read:

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

This was an unexpected book. From the title, you'd think it would be soft and romantic, but it's not at all. The main character is an 18-year-old who has just aged out of the foster care system. Victoria failed to find a place in one foster home after another, and after age 10, she lived in group homes until she hit 18 and was pushed out into the world. She has no friends, no family, no history, no prospects, and no skills, and soon she is homeless. The thing that saves her is, her last foster parent taught her the meaning/language of flowers (i.e., asters = patience, rosemary = remembrance, etc.), and her love for flowers, combined with her ability to put together the perfect bouquet, saves her. She finds a florist willing to give her some under-the-table work, and creates for herself a small, regular life--for awhile. Then her past starts to catch up with her...

The story is told in alternating chapters between the (last) foster home she was in at 10 and her present existence, and the level of tension maintained as you wait to find out what happened keeps you eagerly reading. The character is engaging despite herself, and you alternate between feeling sorry for her and wanting to shake her. It's a beautifully written book, full of metaphor and emotion, but also spare, in a sense--it leads you but doesn't force anything.

This book put me in mind of another that we read for 10-12 book club last year--The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton. The protagonists are both young, both outsiders with real challenges, unexpected love interests, and conflicts about whether to let down their guard.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple

The mom in this book--Bernadette--reminded me so strongly of a friend of mine--quirky, deeply sarcastic in a funny way, crazy about her children, agoraphobic, impulsive and creative--that I'm going to buy this book for her. (Although I wonder if people recognize themselves in the same way their friends do, even when the resemblance is pointed out?) We all know someone like this--the person whose opinion we crave most, because it cuts to the heart of things and also makes us laugh, the person who may look like "just" a housewife or a mom (if anyone still says "just" in that context!), but who is special enough to command every room she enters.

This book is told mostly from the viewpoint of Bee, Bernadette's precocious 15-year-old daughter, and in the beginning you discover that Bernadette has disappeared and Bee is trying to find out where she went. But it's not a direct narrative; instead, Bee has pieced together notes, emails, magazine articles, directly observed behavior, and overhead telephone conversations in her quest to find her mom, which is great because you get the details mostly in the voice of Bernadette.

The book, using Bernadette (a bicoastal New York/Los Angeles transplant) as a vehicle, relentlessly (amusingly and accurately) satirizes the Pacific Northwest, from its hairdos (short gray hair or long gray hair--"the hairdressers squealed with joy when I asked them for hair color") to its lingo (women are "gals," a little bit is "a skosh," and any request is met with "no worries"), from its weather (which is so unrelenting in its sameness that Bernadette marvels at their banality when people initiate a conversation about it) to its industries, chief among them being the behemoth Microsoft (or MS), where Bernadette's husband and Bee's father, Elgin, works.

After the establishing of the characters, so that you have an idea of who they are in the present, the author takes you into Bernadette's past, in which you discover some surprising things about her that may provide clues to her disappearance. Was the trigger buried deep in that past and did its uncovering so deeply unsettle her that she freaked out and left? or was it simpler than that--was her erratic behavior due to the  persistent denigration of her by the other private school moms, the daunting prospect (to an agoraphobic) of going on a family trip to the Antarctic as Bee's reward for good grades--or what? what was it?

Read it and find out!

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