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September 7, 2016 – Notes

 In attendance: Liz Clarke, Vivian Krone, Janice Loschiavo, Lois Pagnozzi, Meta Pitrelli, Sharon Rome, Barbara Santillo, Tina Segali, Joan Swensen

Absent: Cathy Quinn (recuperating at home from a recent stay in the hospital), Marilyn Sinisi (enjoying a visit from her sister and nephew).

Emeritus: Donna Sabetta, Jeri Stangl.

Book & Author: Choose a favorite to share with the group

Although we will not be reading the 100th book until this December, the group wanted to celebrate the occasion in September before many members are off to warmer climes.   At the last meeting, it was decided to have each person select a book they would like to discuss with the members. The result was one of the most successful and interesting meetings we’ve ever had.

Several gifts were shared:

  • Barbara distributed an apron to each of us with Bibliophile emblazoned across the front and a picture of an owl in the center. The apron even has pockets useful for the cook.
  • Vivian presented each of us with a container of biscotti. She knows us well!
  • Sharon delivered a long-distance gift from Jeri Stangl. We all received a violet book bag with a quote on it from Charles William Eliot: Books are the quietest and most constant of friends.
  • Tina’s gift was from Sicily: magnets with graphic images and bookmarks with quotes in Italian.

 The food was abundant (no pizza tonight!):

  • Liz brought pork wrapped in bacon (gilding the lily?!) and potatoes.
  • Janice brought chicken, rice and treats.
  • Sharon brought her incomparable apricot squares and a cherry cheese confection in cupcake holders.
  • Barbara and Tina brought the popular item: prosecco. (The group forced Barbara to have a sip.)
  • Lois delivered grilled asparagus and salad.
  • There was also a selection of cheeses and crackers, bread, and likely other food I’ve failed to mention.

We started the evening with stories of memorable moments from past meetings, among them:

  • Martha Witt, the author of Broken as Things Are, was invited by Janice to discuss the book with the group. No one liked the book, but graciously managed to ask appropriate questions and express admiration. Everyone liked the author, however.
  • Having author Mary Gordon at a meeting was surely a highlight in the history of the book club. Emotions ran high that night – someone remembered Barbara running into the street after Mary; another remembered an odd phone call made to Geri Schmidt, via Linda Catanzaro.
  • Another memorable evening occurred when Liz recounted special moments. Ask her about Teddy Nardin.

We went around the table talking about our selections:

  • Joan recounted how much she enjoyed The Help. In talking about the film, it was pointed out that the nasty woman was Ron Howard’s daughter.
  • Meta mentioned several books that she’s enjoyed: The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman (also a film starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander); The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford; The Hour I First Believed and She’s Come Undone, both by Wally Lamb.
  • Sharon had liked Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a non-fiction exploration of sexual mores from WWII to the 70s. We talked about Talese’s new controversial book, The Voyeur’s Motel, an account of a hotelier who spied on the sexual activities of his customers. Sharon is currently reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time, about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
  • Liz raved about Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity, a novel that weaves the events of the cold war (1961-1989) into the lives of the children of characters seen in two earlier installments of this trilogy. All the key points from our youth are recalled: JFK, RJK, MLK, Marilyn, the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc. Also mentioned by Liz was The Underground Railroad, an Oprah selection by Colson Whitehead. It recounts the story of two slaves who make a bid for freedom from their Georgia plantations by following the Underground Railroad.
  • Lois loved Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, about a former Nazi SS guard who asks a young woman to kill him. Lois also recommended Natchez Burning, by Greg Iles, the first novel in a projected trilogy about a man whose father is accused of murdering a black nurse. It takes in MLK, JFK, RFK, the KKK. The sequel is The Bone Tree.
  • Vivian recommended The Tender Bar, a memoir by J. R. Moehringer. He also wrote Sutton, about bank robber Willie Sutton.
  • Barbara highlighted four books: Lila, the third book in the Gilead series by Marilynne Robinson; The Road to Character, a book about humility by David Brooks; Just Kids, a memoir and M Train, an essay collection, both by the artist Patti Smith. It must be noted that Barbara also mentioned a book that’s surely flying off the shelves: Therese, Faustina and Bernadette: Three Saints Who Challenged My Faith, Gave Me Hope, and Taught Me How to Love, by Elizabeth Ficocelli.
  • Janice recommended a first novel by a woman in her writing group: Gatekeepers of the Grapevine, by Jane Paterson. It’s a witty and richly descriptive book about wealthy women in South Africa. It’s $2.99 and available only for downloading onto Kindle.
  • Barbara delivered Cathy’s choice: Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. All agreed that this would be fun and interesting to revisit, since most had read it when younger.
  • Tina recommended a book written between 500 and 700 years B.C.: Homer’s Odyssey, from which we extract so many familiar stories like the Cyclops. All the wonderful tales of the Greek gods and goddesses are here, woven with the story of Odysseus and his journey back to Ithaca. She also mentioned Hayden Herrera’s Frida: a Biography of Frida Kahlo.

Everyone was energized by the meeting and couldn’t wait to get home and get reading!

Next Meeting: Wednesday, October 5, beginning at 5:00 p.m., at Joan’s house in Mahwah. There will be pizza! Food assignments include Vivian and Sharon, dessert; Barbara and Janice, salad; Liz, appetizer; Lois and Tina, wine.

Next Book: selected by Sharon, is Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Submitted by Tina Segali

September 12, 2016

Janet Maslin’s NY Times Review of Where’d You Go, Bernadette

The free-range hilarity of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” begins with Bee Branch’s report card from Galer Street School in Seattle, “a place where compassion, academics and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.” This school gives three grades: S for “Surpasses Excellence,” A for “Achieves Excellence” and W for “Working Towards Excellence.” So every kid is some kind of excellent. But Bee is a straight-S student all the way.

Next: Bee tells her parents, Bernadette Fox and Elgin Branch, that they promised her anything she wanted for a middle school graduation present, and that she’s ready to collect. “It was to ward off further talk of a pony,” Bernadette says about that vow. Still, she would much rather give her daughter a four-legged, hay-eating gift than the one Bee has in mind.

Now we leap to Bernadette’s correspondence with Manjula Kapoor, her “virtual assistant from India,” who sounds willing to indulge Bernadette’s every whim for a whopping 75 cents an hour. Bernadette tosses all graduation gift plans in Manjula’s direction. Manjula is polite, efficient and only rarely confused by Bernadette’s ramblings.

“Have it all shipped to the manse,” Bernadette babbles about the merchandise she wants mail-ordered. “You’re the best!”

“What is manse?” Manjula replies. “I do not find it in any of my records.”

Now we see a fund-raising letter to the Galer Street School Parent Association from a guy calling himself Ollie-O, whose goal is to make this Seattle school as desirable as Lakeside, Bill Gates’s alma mater. “Grab your crampons,” Ollie-O writes in boldface, “because we have an uphill climb.”

After all, the school’s unappetizing campus is adjacent to a wholesale seafood distributor in an industrial park. “The first action item is a redesign of the Galer Street logo,” the letter says. “Much as I love clip-art handprints, let’s try to find an image that better articulates success.”

Next: a letter to “a blackberry abatement specialist” from a stingy, sanctimonious crank named Audrey Griffin, who wants her yard cleared of prickly blackberry bushes in time for the school’s fund-raising party. Audrey would much rather give orders to this landscaper than pay him. “Blessings, and help yourself to some chard,” she writes in closing.

“I don’t need chard,” the landscaper later replies, threatening Audrey with lien proceedings.

The above is only an introductory sampling of how Maria Semple has put together this divinely funny, many-faceted novel. Before she wrote books, Ms. Semple was a television writer (for shows including “Arrested Development” and “Mad About You”), and that turns out to be a very good thing.

Her first novel, “This One Is Mine,” was written in standard narrative style, but “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” leaves convention behind. Instead, it plays to Ms. Semple’s strengths as someone who can practice ventriloquism in many voices, skip over the mundane and utterly refute the notion that mixed-media fiction is bloggy, slack or lazy.

The tightly constructed “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is written in many formats — e-mails, letters, F.B.I. documents, correspondence with a psychiatrist and even an emergency-room bill for a run-in between Bernadette and Audrey. Yet these pieces are strung together so wittily that Ms. Semple’s storytelling is always front and center, in sharp focus. You could stop and pay attention to how apt each new format is, how rarely she repeats herself and how imaginatively she unveils every bit of information. But you would have to stop laughing first.

Everyone in this sparkling novel is wily, smart or even smarter. The brainiest character is arguably Elgin, who works at Microsoft and leads the design team for what, the book says, is Bill Gates’s favorite project. Elgin is famed for not wearing shoes, for giving the fourth-most-watched TED talk and for generally being Microsoft’s version of a rock star.

His athletic habits are pure Seattle: for a morning bicycle workout he puts on a heart-rate monitor, a shoulder brace of his own invention and what Bee calls “goony fluorescent racing pants.” Then he swigs “green juice of his own making” and chooses a recumbent bike to counteract the way the hills affect his wrists. Bernadette doesn’t hate him, but she sure hates that kind of Seattle chic.

Bernadette’s loathing for Seattle does not stop her from delivering endless, razor-sharp wisecracks about the place. And part of why she resents her new home (“there are two hairstyles here: short gray hair and long gray hair”) is because she is out of her element. She fled Los Angeles for reasons the book does not immediately explain. She strikes Seattle residents as a Microsoft-moneyed snob who really ought to switch to decaf.

Bernadette, for her part, calls Galer Street parents “gnats,” and treats them accordingly. When she deigns to show up at the school, Audrey complains that “she’s like Franklin Delano Roosevelt” because she stays in her car, so that the other parents see her only from the waist up. Bernadette and Audrey treat each other so spitefully that it’s a damn shame when they stop fighting.

In a sublime plot thread that begins with Audrey and the blackberries and spirals toward comedy heaven (watch what happens to Kyle, Audrey’s doted-on little delinquent son), Bernadette does major, unintentional damage to the Galer Street community. As a consequence — and for the second time in her secretive life — she has to disappear.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” signals that fact with its punchy, TV-style title. Then it travels to one of the most surreal places on earth so that the Branch family can, at long last, resolve the real troubles that underlie the book’s humor.

There’s much more merriment to Bernadette’s getting lost than to if, when and how she will be found. But Ms. Semple adores her heroine too much to treat her lightly. So this book eventually acknowledges how miserable Bernadette has been. But it makes her a great, endearing presence, whether she’s happy or sad, here or gone.

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