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Oh, Seattle: Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

As a Seattle transplant, I’m not sure why I waited so long to read a book about another Seattle transplant with similar antisocial, maladjusted tendencies. Perhaps it was because of all the hype - Where’d You Go, Bernadette was all over the city’s bookstores and local NPR programming. I couldn’t get away from it and because of that, I didn’t want to read it.

I finally decided to get it from the library and just finished it, about 24 hours after starting it (I unfortunately do not have the luxury of sitting on my ass and reading all day, otherwise I would have finished it hours ago). Which is to say, I really enjoyed this book. There are passages that describe Seattle nearly perfectly, from an outsider’s perspective. Although I’ve never heard the term “logy” to describe tiredness, I used to be a “gal,” but recently graduated to “assistant.” Most people I have dealt with really do say “no worries” (which sounds more like something Crocodile Dundee might say, or a dreadful Canadian), and “crisscross applesauce” is the Seattle-approved term for what I called “Indian-style” when learning how to sit in a circle in kindergarten. I have made the mistake of taking “partners” to mean business partners, instead of romantic partners, and visa versa. (See page 122 in the hardcover edition.)

In a city that revels in its own pretensions (hipsters did originate here), it was delightful to read a book that skewered them so perfectly. Semple even mentions the ratio of billionaires per capata to the number of homeless people on Seattle’s streets (oh no she di’int!). Bernadette has her own pretensions, of course, and while a fellow transplant may identify with many of the things she has to say, Bernadette can be just as vicious as the people she can’t seem to tolerate. There are definitely points of exaggeration about Seattle, so there must be some grains of salt taken, preferably on dark chocolate caramels from Fran’s. I haven’t been to the See’s candy store in Westlake to verify if homeless people are actually lining up to get the free samples, but I could see that happening. Each character, except our narrator Bee, is disconnected from reality in their own obvious, specific way and by the end, each has had reality slap them in the face. Bee has the privilege of youth and hindsight; the book is set up as her attempt to piece together the circumstances and facts of her mother’s disappearance. She is our TORCH, our Time Out, Reality CHeck.

The book presents itself as a mystery and a character study. Seattle itself becomes a character, but too frequently the book seemed more full of caricatures instead of fully-fleshed out characters. I realize that part of the conceit is that you can never fully know another person and the point is that we as people need to try to understand, or at the very least accept people for who they are. But it’s hard to get to know a character or accept them when the author doesn’t let you, as was the case with many of the supporting cast. Audrey & Soo-Lin are the best and worst examples of this. Much of the first half of the novel is correspondence between these two and their disconnect from reality is villainously funny yet their characters rely woefully on stereotypes. Perhaps these stereotypes are best known only to Seattilites; I’ve certainly met a few people who might be on the parent committee with Audrey, but I assume that they are more complex human beings than Semple seems to give them credit for. While Bernadette is clearly our hero – the sympathetic, stifled genius, forced to endure people and a city she loathes – we see that she is, in many ways, also the architect (heh) of her own unhappiness and demise.

When the fever-pitch for Where’d you Go, Bernadette was at its height, I remember overhearing some ladies talking about it at my favorite bookstore. They didn’t like it because they felt it was so negative about Seattle and the people here. And it is, it really is. But it is so funny. It’s the first book I have laughed aloud at out of recognition in a very, very long time. I was sitting there last night, interrupting my husband’s Archer-fest reading passages out-loud because I knew he’d appreciate them too. (The bit about Chihuly and the infestation of his cthulhu-like chandeliers was too much). There’s a half-hearted attempt at the end (the very last page, in fact) to pay homage to what Seattle has to offer, but it was a bit too little, too late to feel truly heart-felt. Apparently, the best thing about Seattle is that kids at the private schools don’t know who Ben Stiller is and don’t have cell phones stuck to their thumbs. Unfortunately, that’s simply not true.

The Beauty Of A Well-Made Book: A Place In The Country By W.G. Sebald

I’ve always loved books as physical objects, and I’m more willing to save up and shell out for a hardcover with a beautiful cover or design (especially if the paperback is ugly). Part of a book ugliness for me deals with the very subjective measures of design, paper type and texture, and typeface. There are no set rules for each of these categories, but I know a beautiful book when I see it in physical form. This is one reason I don’t order that many books from Amazon. However, I usually prefer books that have thinner, smooth pages, and a smaller typeface. In other words, I tend to like books that are reminiscent of the Norton anthologies I read as a lit student. Paper type is the most variable of the three criteria, but essentially, the pages need to have a creamy texture; I actually rub the paper between my thumb and forefinger to test this on almost every single book I buy.

A Place In The CountryI recently ordered W.G. Sebald’s collection of essays published in February, A Place In The Country, sight unseen. There are few authors whose books I will buy no matter what they may look or feel like, and Sebald is one of them (Haruki Murakami is another). I was especially excited because of all of the works of his I own, A Place In The Country is the only one I will probably be able to own in hardcover (and first edition). It sat there on the hold shelf at my local bookstore for two and a half weeks before I could afford to pick it up. I went in one day before I could buy it and asked to see it. I was entranced by how beautiful it is. I walked around the store with it for about 10 minutes, pretending to browse just so I could hold it and feel its smooth, creamy pages and run my finger under the book jacket along the cloth covering, a rarity.

Like most of Sebald’s books, the type was a bit larger and more widely spaced than I generally like, but there is a particular perfection of paragraph size and typeface that makes his densely packed, multi-page paragraphs more readable. I’ve tried to get through László Krasznahorkai’s War and War and been put-off by the dense paragraphs and typography, even though I think it’s aesthetically beautiful. The pages of A Place In The Country are straight-cut and of a medium thickness and opacity. Thinking about page cut, I realize that I’ve never met a deckle-edged book I didn’t like, but it’s not a main criteria. I prefer non-fiction books that have deckle-edges; that alone will make me more likely to buy the book, when I can afford to.

Eventually, I gave it back to the bookseller and promised that I’d be back in a week to get it. After waiting so long to get A Place In The Country, it’s taken me a few days to actually pick it up and start reading it. Sebald is a frame of mind, one that I find my self in less and less the longer it’s been since I’ve left graduate school. That will not stop me from buying anything else of his that is published posthumously. His writing is a treasure trove of ideas and experiences, and a great pleasure to read. It’s finally been housed in a beautiful book worthy of his name.

Library Book Hoarders, Episode 2: Understanding Library Book Hoarding

Hello, my name is Veronica and I am a library book hoarder. Last time, I gave some background as to what has led me to the point where my library check out limit is reached and I continue to keep it that way by checking out as many as I return. This week, I seek to understand my problem.

The Club Dumas

Who knew book collecting was this exciting?

Bibliophilia is a well known disorder with an illustrious history and many famous sufferers, in certain circles. There are many names one could list here, but I’ll go with two of my favorites. The first is an editor named William Targ, author of Bouillabaisse For Bibliophiles and Carrousel For Bibliophiles, neither of which I have read but both of which I own first editions of (both are out of print, of course). It is not uncommon for the bibliophile to obtain books he or she will never read but nonetheless take great pleasure in owning. This desire to own books, especially certain books, can easily become an obsession. A great example of this can be found in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas, which was also made into a move by Roman Polanski called The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp. As enjoyable as books are, however, I’m not sure bibliophilia drives people devil-worshiping insane.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves

Beautiful book on the pleasures and pains of owning books.

A more innocuous take on book collecting and bibliophilia comes from a recent, slim little book by Jaques Bonnet, called Phantoms On The Bookshelves, which I actually did read (borrowed from the library, no less). Bonnet discusses his library, spread across 5 different places (home, offices, storage), the travails of organizing such a library (by subject, alphabetically by author, by geography, by all of these things?) and what it is like to reach for a book you may have had for years and never looked at once bought, only to realize that it’s not there. Bonnet is eloquent, funny, and very insightful about what it means to have a personal library.

Bonnet, however, is much older than I and has had a much longer time in which to build his enormous personal library. Without having met him and knowing nothing of his circumstances except for what he shares in the book, it also sounds like he has had more means as well, which brings me to the crux of library book hoarding: it’s bibliophilism for when you’re poor.

When you’re a literature graduate student, you can claim “reasearch” as your excuse. No one will batt an eye at you, unless you have a book they want. When you’ve left school and have a job or hobby that doesn’t require research, it’s harder to use that as an excuse. A known diagnostic of bibliophilism coupled with scarce economic means (that English degree you’ve got turns out to be less than economically viable outside of academia) can easily turn into library book hoarding.

Imagine it: you haven’t been able to buy a book in more than a month. You go into your local library branch to pick ColumbiaCityLibrary_entrance6up the two books you have on hold. You’ve got a few minutes before you have to do something or be somewhere, so you decide to quickly browse the fiction section to see what’s there. Half an hour later, you’ve got six more books than what you came in for. You go home and read an interesting blog post (or several) that mentions some interesting books. You check your library and put a few on hold. Your hold list is now about half-way to its limit. A week later you get an email saying eight of your 35 holds are ready for pick-up. You’ll loose the books if you don’t pick them all up now, and you’ve waited so long for at least one of the books. So you go pick them all up. You find you have a few minutes to browse and the cycle repeats.

Library books can also be an exercise in delayed gratification if you use the hold system often, like I do. I have to wait to read that hot new bestseller until the library not only has it in stock, but also until the hold line reaches me. I frequently put books on hold months in advance so that I can be in the first batch of readers to get a given book. I also frequently forget I’ve got it on hold, so when I get a “ready for pick up email,” it’s kind of like getting an unexpected gift.

But what about the keeping, the hoarding of books? I’m not the only one who likes unexpected gifts from the library, so why not return more than I check out regularly so that other people can get those books too? Because tomorrow I will finally look at that book on the mathematics of biology, or the new book of essays by Umberto Eco, or I might be in the mood to start that master-work of WWII era novels, Life and Fate. Or maybe I’ll finally find out how literature saved David Shield’s life and just maybe I’ll figure out how it can save mine too. The key link between library hoarding and bibliophilia is that the potential to read a given book is always present and one wants that book to be on hand when the time comes or the mood strikes. At the heart of both bibliophilia and the hoarding of library books is having the book you want when you want it. For people who don’t have the means to add the pleasure of ownership to that need, the library is the next best thing.

Library Book Hoarders, Episode 1: Introduce Yourself

Hi my name is Veronica and I have a problem. I am a library book hoarder. My library checkout limit of 50 books has been reached. I can’t check out anything else without returning something. I had to put books I had grabbed off the shelves back in order to check out what I had on hold. I cannot leave my library without an armful of books.

As far as addictions go, this one is pretty innocuous and it is not a real disorder, like actual hoarding can be.

Found on uphillwriting.org

Found on uphillwriting.org

My partner might say otherwise, especially when my horde of library books breaches the borders of my desk and starts colonizing the coffee table (the agreed-upon neutral territory in our home), the bedroom, the serving counter by the kitchen. I already have a decently sized library in our smallish apartment that takes up a large 8-foot bookshelf and two smaller ones. This is only about 1/4 of my total library. But I’m not here to brag about the size of my personal library, I’m here to talk about my abuse of the public library system.

It started when I was a child. I spent large chunks of my summer in the public library, reading through the older kids stuff, then through teens and eventually into the adult section before we moved away. I’d bring home a pile of books I’d found browsing, or in those early years that I couldn’t finish reading there at the library. It was a smaller town and the librarians knew me pretty well. Matilda was (and still is) my hero. I racked up some pretty amazing library fines (for my 11 year old self, $10 was astonishing) that my parents had to pay. My mom got so fed up with me, she refused to even take me to the library on several occasions.

The town we moved to in my teens didn’t have a very good library and it didn’t feel like the home I had made at my old library, so I spent little time there and rarely checked out books. I started working at a bookstore in our dying mall my senior year of high school, then I worked at another one, and another one or two after that when I moved to college. The public library became less important as I started to build a personal library.

As an English major, the library became essential and this is where my hoarding of library books began in earnest. I loved researching things, so it became my habit to check out anything of interest for a given paper I had to write. Since I usually had multiple papers going at the same time, my research piles grew and grew. I usually wasn’t the only student writing on the given topic however, so there was frequently a resource grab, especially once I became a graduate student. One day, while taking a course on Jane Austen, we all got to class one day and had to figure out who in the class had what books so that we could copy relevant chapters/articles for our own papers. Most of the books on Jane Austen were checked out by the 12 of us, myself in particular. In another class, on Salman Rushdie, a fellow student (who I had thought was a friend) confessed to me, once the course was over, that she had checked out a book she knew I needed just so I wouldn’t get it. The fight for library resources among English lit grads can be a nasty, petty game. But let me tell you something, Inter-Library Loan is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

I was almost always close to my library’s check-out limit as a student. My end of semester ritual was hauling all of those books up the hill and gratefully, but still with a twinge of sadness, shoving 40+ books through the return slot. I’m pretty sure the staff hated semester’s end.

My desk, covered in library books.

My desk, covered in library books.

A childhood love of reading and a lit student’s research methods have combined to make me one hell of a library book hoarder. I check out whatever looks interesting, whether that’s Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical by Gregory Chaitin or Does It Matter? by Alan Watts.  There are books I actually read, of course; many of the reviews for this site are of library books, not books I own. But it’s hard to read Vikram Seth’s epic-sized A Suitable Boy at the same time as Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, especially when there are 40 other books in my library horde that all look utterly fascinating and are clamoring for my attention.

I have more books checked out than I can possibly read, and I don’t know how to stop.

 

Tune in next Friday for Episode 2: Understanding Library Book Hoarding.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (Southern Reach Trilogy #1)

Jeff VanderMeer is a fandom favorite as well as a critical darling. His work is in the Library of America, he’s won a World Fantasy award and he’s been nominated for a Nebula and another World Fantasy Award. VanderMeer is hailed as one of the best writers of the New Weird, along with China Miéville and K.J. Bishop. In fact, they kind of invented it. The movement blends horror with speculative fiction in a frequently very Lovecraftian way. According to Wikipedia, the movement ended in 2005. Not so, if you count his latest book Annihilation, the first of the Southern Reach trilogy. In a smart publishing deal, the entire trilogy will be released this year (May and September, respectively), recalling the serial novels of yore that helped create a wide readership for popular fiction. This reader is very happy with that decision. 

AnnihilationAnnihilation introduces us to Area X, a mysterious place where strange things happen. The unofficial official story is that an accident at a government testing site created Area X. A shadowy government agency, The Southern Reach, has been sending teams in to explore and document the area. Many of these expeditions have never returned, but those who do return radically changed. The expedition that we are privy to is composed of four women, known only as the psychologist (the leader of the expedition), the biologist (our narrator), the anthropologist, and the surveyor, who has military training. All of the women were specially selected, and have undergone rigorous training that has taught them everything and nothing about what they might encounter in Area X. Armed with few basic supplies and no advanced tech (and no tampons because women don’t get their periods anymore, apparently), the women cross the “border” into the unknown.

As expected, few things are what they seem in Area X and the group as such quickly disintegrates. This is hinted at on the first page, creating in large part a sense of dread in the reader that is more or less sustained throughout the rest of the novel. The dread is two-fold: we know something bad is going to happen, but there’s also the sense that there is something deeply unnatural about this place. There are several instances of the uncanny, felt by both the narrator and the reader on different levels. The reader feels the narrator’s experience of the uncanny, but the reader is granted their own experience as the realization dawns that we don’t really know who our narrator is and we therefor cannot trust her. Unreliable narrators are one of my favorite things in fiction and VanderMeer does it quite well.

It also exposes one of the narrative’s chief flaws. The narrator is a biologist with interpersonal issues, so her detached tone makes sense but by the time revelation occurs (and it does, to a degree), the reader is still too distant from her emotionally for it to carry much weight. We are detached from her because she is detached from herself and from the world around her, even as she is pulled deep into its mystery. It’s typical of the Lovecraftian brand of horror to privilege the world/cosmos and its unknowns over finely drawn human beings, but VanderMeer goes out of his way to include a back story to explain some of the narrator’s motivations and to try and give her emotional weight as a character. It was an odd tension for me, and added to my disappointment with the revelation and ending of the novel.

The book has a solid arc and a definitive ending that makes it feel as if it were a stand-alone while maintaing a high level of curiosity in the reader to ensure they buy the next book. Some, very few, of the questions raised by Area X were answered, while some were only hinted at. It felt much like the early seasons of Lost, in more ways than just tone, pacing and mystery. There are several similarities, but this is mostly straight Lovecraftian horror. It is a slow-building creep-show with glimpses of the uncanny, encounters with the sublime, and a high sense of dread. It’s exactly the kind of horror I love.

AuthorityLook out for Authority, the second book of the Southern Reach trilogy on May 6th 2014 from FSG Originals.