Where Did You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Is there anything Semple doesn’t (justly) scorn in this most wonderful novel? From schools to neighborhoods, administrators to parents, Microsoft to architecture, she has a brilliant quip for it all. I’ve longed for the boy who says of the emporer, “But, he isn’t wearing any clothes!” and all the time he’s been disguised as the author, Maria Semple.

The novel is told from Bernadette’s daughter’s point of view, in the form of documents written by Bernadette’s husband, their neighbor, the school principal, psychiatrists and policemen. They all take part in telling the tale behind Bernadette’s disappearance, an unexpected leave of absence from her day to day life. 
I kept telling my friends at school, to whom I’d given the book for World Book Night 2014, “I love Bernadette! I can totally relate to her,” and they’d look at me askance while asking, “Have you finished the book yet?” But I didn’t need to finish the book to relate to her utter frustration with her career, her feeling of no longer being productive, her annoyance with people.

“You want to know the coolest part?” (of their planned trip to Antarctica) Mom chimed in. “There isn’t any assigned seating at the dining room, and they have tables for four. That means the three of us can sit down and if we pile the extra chairs with our gloves and hats, nobody can sit with us!” 

Dad and I looked at each other, like, Is she joking? 

“And penguins,” Mom quickly added. “I’m wildly excited about all those penguins.”

That whole scene makes total sense to me; I’m much less interested in new adventures than I am concerned about having to sit through a whole dinner with strangers who hope I’ll be entertaining. I don’t want to be entertaining, I want to be left alone. Hence one of my many connections to Bernadette.
I also love that she chose an abandoned girls’ school as their family home in Seattle, never mind that it leaks rust colored water into spaghetti pots or has blackberry brambles which infuriate an already infuriating neighbor. I loathe McMansions, homes with no personality at all on the inside, but a perfect facade on the outside.
But, this book is not about me. It’s about Bernadette, a hurt and frustrated architect, her gifted daughter, Bee, and her Microsoft employed husband who’s working so hard he’s never home. He does, however, have time for his admin, Soo-Lin. 
And when he has to, he finds the time to be with his daughter as she searches for her mother. Somewhere, she is sure, in Antarctica. 

World Book Night

My friend Carol went with me tonight to Manor Care where she works as a speech pathologist. Who better to give the gift of literature to than those whose language has been impaired? “They may have trouble speaking,” I thought, “but they won’t have trouble receiving the written word.”
It was a humbling experience to walk through halls where many cannot walk. They sat despondently in wheelchairs, many of these patients, and looked up expectantly when we walked in. “What did we bear in our arms besides books?” they seemed to ask. Could we possibly give them the lives they held before the brain aneurysm? Before the fall which hindered their capability to walk? Could we possibly alleviate the loneliness?

I walked into one of the patient’s rooms which the director of the facility had chosen for me to give a book, and I had the most lovely talk with Eve. “I have a book for you,” I said and discovered that she loved to read as much as I. “Could we have our picture taken?” I asked. “Oh, no,” she said, completely horrified. “I look terrible tonight. I’ve just washed my hair and it’s a mess…” So I gave up the idea of a photo, and chatted with her longer instead, when I heard a call from the bed next to hers behind a curtain.

“What about me?” this insistent voice hollered. “I love to read, too! I feel so left out!” I walked around to see who it was calling, and I said, “Don’t feel left out. Here’s a book for you, too.” I put my hand on her knee, and I told her I wanted her to have a book and feel the joy of literature. “No one ever calls me,” she said. “No one ever comes to see me, they’re always going to see her.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m here to share with you.”

But I can’t sleep tonight. Because giving out the books reminded me that I’m giving something important. It’s one tangible piece of affection, one little reminder that you matter. You, in the nursing home, spending too much time alone, are important.
If a book can do that, serve as a reminder of what is good and comforting in life, then it has served its purpose. The World Book Night organization has served its purpose.
May everyone who received a book tonight be blessed.

World Book Night Reveals Titles for 2013

World Book Night announced the titles of the books available to give away this year. Each giver receives a box of twenty books to distribute on World Book Night which is April 23, 2013. The guidelines and application is here, but don’t worry; you have from now through January, 2013, to apply.
The titles are so exciting I can hardly decide which one I’d like to give away! Possibly The Girl With The Pearl Earring. Or, City of Thieves. Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. Maybe even Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward… 
I hope that you’ll participate with me, and other givers, as there’s nothing quite so wonderful as sharing the love of literature. Especially with people who don’t have easy access to a book of their own.