Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Discussion: Where'd You Go Bernadette

Co-authored with Whitney Torres

Welcome to the very first book discussion of our Book Club collaboration with Wit& Spice. As our readers may know, our first book is Maria Semple’s mixed-media, comedic novel Where’d You Go Bernadette.

I realize you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but this novel’s quirky little face kept popping up in every bookstore I frequented. Displayed on their best-seller table, the book depicts a cartoonish doodle of a lady, complete with red lipstick, scarf, and over-sized sunglasses. Her surprised little expression and the book’s praises caught my attention and motivated me to propose it as our first book club selection.

Before we dive into the discussion, we friendly caution that—if you haven’t yet finished the book—ye be warned, there be spoilers ahead.


While most books can be easily summed up in a sentence or less, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" refuses to be shoved into a single description. I loved that about this story.

Few authors could concocted a tale with as many twists and turns without it sounding utterly ridiculous. Maria Semple weaves the tale of a once-famous architect, a high-ranking Microsoft employee, and their brainy daughter -- all living in a rainy little corner of Seattle. Seems pretty normal, right? Add in a gaggle of Seattle school moms, an FBI investigation, and the Russian mafia disguised as a virtual assistant from India.

Then you have a story that you'll not soon forget. 

Semple leaves traditional narrative style behind and tells the story through a series of emails, memos, letters -- even bills and receipts. It reminded me of another one of my favorite reads, Love Rosie by Cecelia Ahern. Not everyone is on board with this style of writing, but personally I love it. I think it's such a fun and interesting way to piece a story together. 


1. the use of mixed-media

Several reviewers lauded Semple’s use of mixed media in this novel. What did you think of it? Did you find it distracting or well-executed? Personally, I love the use of mixed-media in creative writing. The mixed-media format accentuates that this story is about Bee piecing together the facts and lies about her mother’s disappearance. As you read the novel, some of the “pieces” overlap or become disjointed, just as they might in real life. You can imagine Bee’s confusion as she fits the pieces together to create the multi-faceted story of her mother’s life. My only complaint about Semple’s execution of mixed media is the use of faxes as personal correspondence. …I mean really, who uses a fax that way?

2. a love-hate relationship with the characters

When I first began reading this book, I loved 15 year-old Bee…and disliked all the  others, including Bernadette. I saw her as a whiny, neurotic grump-butt who wasted her day doing…well, not much. Elgie seemed removed, a cold, absentee parent focused entirely on his career,  while the fluttering flock of private-school moms seemed a bit too intense, fakey, and rude. (But then again, we did always view them through Bernadette’s over-sized sunglasses.) When Elgie began his scheme to have Bernadette committed, my dislike for his character intensified, although I was inclined to agree that Bernadette did need professional help. Yet as the book progressed, my feelings for the characters did change. Reading about Elgie’s confusion and angst over Bernadette’s disappearance provoked some sympathy for his character. Once we discover Bernadette’s past life, finally find her in Antarctica, and realize that she did try to contact her family, my opinion of her character did a complete about-face. Her actions seemed less selfish and more pitiful. She was a creative soul, sucked dry by her career failures, her miscarriages, and other’s misjudgments. 

But isn't it so easy to let that exact thing happen to us? We squelch our personal happiness and let our relationships erode under the burden of work and the fear of “what others might think.” Bernadette did what many never have the bravery to do: she refused to bend backward any longer and made a drastic change.

3. the use of setting as an objective correlative for Bernadette’s psyche

One thing that stood out throughout the entire novel was Semple’s stylistic use of setting as an objective correlative for Bernadette. The two main examples would be their home Straight Gate and later Antarctica. We learn that Bernadette bought Straight Gate, an abandoned, dilapidated girl’s school, with the intention of re-designing it as her family home. Just as she did with the Beeber Bifocal factory, Bernadette aimed to transform something empty, ugly, and useless into something loved, functional, and beautiful. But hher creative outlets stymied, Bernadette fell into a half-life and moved into Straight Gate without renovating even one aspect of it. Semple repeatedly describes Straight Gate’s faded glory, it’s crumbling walls, jammed doors, and rotten floors. There’s even one scene in which Bee’s friend screams that a ghost is moving under the rugs when it’s actually blackberry vines poking up through the foundation and floor to pucker the carpets. How awful is that? Like Bernadette, the house is crumbling to the point of collapse and is viewed as an eyesore and oddity to other women in the community.
In total opposition to Straight Gate, Semple then gives us Bernadette in Antarctica. She describes it the vast frozen landscape as a vicious place, demanding of its inhabitants. In this intense, harsh place, Bernadette finds herself again—as does her daughter Bee and husband Elgie. Faced with the architectural design challenge of creating a research station at the South Pole, Bernadette regains a sense of purpose and becomes a focused, fulfilled person once again. She rises to the challenge of Antarctica, becoming hard, resilient, driven. Why Antarctica? Because how much more exotic can you get? While Straight Gate teemed with life, like the invasive blackberry vines and brambles, but symbolized Bernadette’s artistic death, the frozen desert of Antarctica, with its white snow and blue ice, perhaps symbolized Bernadette’s redemption.

4. the overall theme

In my opinion, Semple’s overall theme would be the desperate need to be yourself. Bernadette spent years squelching her creativity and hiding from the world—only to lose herself and her
family in the process. Fortunately, her daughter Bee refused to let her mother remain lost.
Bernadette was attempting to be a stay-at-home, private-school, SUV-driving mom, but was
truly an award-winning architect and creative genius. When faced with failure, she abandoned
her true identity and strove to be someone she was not. However, as exemplified by the end of the novel, it’s better to admit who you are—your dreams, your fears, your failures, your successes—rather than to let yourself crumble. After all, as Bee and Elgie demonstrated, your loved ones love you. They chose you. If you suddenly cease to be you, eve for some well
intentioned reason, you’re only hurting them too.

Where'd You Go, Berndette? is one of those stories you'll pick up again and again, trust me. It has easily slipped its way onto our all-time favorites list. Now what did you think of the book? Feel free to use our discussion points as spring-boards or tell us your own thoughts. We're excited to hear!

Stay tuned for updates on our next read!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Self-Portrait in Third Person

She falls asleep with good intentions.

She pulls the fluffy duvet to her nose, snuggles deep into the warm embrace of her bed, scoots her icy feet under her husband's leg, and hears his resigned sigh, As her mind drifts, just before her thoughts unravel into nonsensical dreams, she thinks: I'll wake up early. I'll fix a bowl of oatmeal. Actually have time to curl my hair. To drink my coffee. Maybe even read a page or two. Yes, that's what I'll do--

Only to abandon those good intentions of preparedness in favor of a few extra moments of half-sleep and warmth in the morning. After several years of practice with procrastination, she knows how to apply eyeliner and mascara with a quick, steady hand. How to quickly tease, twist, and pin the mousy-brown hair that reaches to her mid-back. As she pulls on her boots, stretching the last minutes of getting-ready time before she jogging to her car, she wishes she was the kind of girl who could just brush her hair, apply a quick layer of tinted moisturizer,look in the mirror, and call it sufficient. Instead, she sprays every hair and irons every wrinkle into place, compelled to look her best regardless of the day's appointed tasks.

Protein shake. Travel mug warm with black coffee. Gloves. Scarf. Lunch. Book. Cell phone. Water bottle. To many things in one woman's purse, she grumbles to herself as she juggles bag and keys. Then it's two kisses to her husband and a quick pat to her wiggling pup, before dashing to her car to make the long work commute she dreads every morning.

The Maryland winters still make her shiver. The snow streaking the road still makes her grip her her steering wheel a little too tight despite having learned how to drive in real winters. As the work day slips by, memories of southern summers keep her warm as she bundles herself through cold days, She looks ahead to evenings at home with her steady-rock of a husband and bouncy pup--her own little family. The simple joys of her head on his shoulder and the whistling ping-and-patter of their old house's radiators console her in the deep part of winter, keeping homesickness at bay.

Over a slow-cooker supper, she and he will laugh, nudge each other, talk about the next day's events, maybe the next home renovation, or when and how they'll move back south. Curled against the arm of the couch, she watches as he leans forward in his seat, biting his lip in intense focus upon the new football video game. He doesn't notice the  faint grin that quirks the corner of her mouth; she wonders if he knows the pleasure she gets out of these moments--just watching him be him--before drifting to sleep on the couch, the warm weight of the dog pressing her feet.

Only to begin it all again tomorrow.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Afternoon Thoughts

When you've gone without water and heat for three days, a neighbor's kind offering of space heaters  and a warm shower becomes the greatest of treasures. #readyforspring

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tunes, Vol. 8

Here's a little Lorde for your wintery Saturday. Mark and I have been watching Spartacus on Netflix. So this song nicely coincides with the gladiator theme we have going on in the Hobbs house. My personal favorite line from this song: "Let me in the ring; I'll show you what that big word means."

Stay warm, friends!

Friday, February 20, 2015

In So Many Words

"'Everything you do is at full speed, like a rocket taking off,' I said. 'You live each moment as if it were the supreme one, requiring every ounce of energy. You have to just let a few things slip by you, rather than being always pitched at the highest key...Force yourself to relax at times. It is not necessary to do everything as though your life and honor depended on it.' I doubt my words had any effect on her."

These words were written by Julia Child to her friend and fellow cookbook author Simone (Simca) Beck. Taken from one of my all-time favorite memoirs My Life in France, Julia's cautionary words seemed to perfectly describe how I go about daily life. Mark is always admonishing me to take a few steps back, to breathe, and to just enjoy the day. Like Simca, I doubt I pay enough heed to his words. Some of us just plunge into life, fully committed and at full throttle, and find it hard to be any other way.

image source: Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Julie and Julia. Image found here.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Our Weekend in Photos

1. Opened the door to a husband with an armful of roses. The "farmer's bunch"--an ombre array of red, pink, orange, and yellow long-stemmed roses--filled our little dining room with rose perfume.
2. Enjoyed the bright flowers and oil paintings in our dining room, colors that livened the inside despite the dreary weather outside. 
3. Cooked chicken vino bianco with linguine, homemade sourdough bread, dark chocolate vinagerett, and creamy peanut butter pie for dessert. Why venture into the holiday hordes when you can do romantic at home?
4. Considered a blind date with a book at our local book store. Is this not the best idea?
5. Finally finished this squishy-soft baby blanket for a sweet friend whose baby is due in a few weeks. I love the colors, a gradient of burnt oranges and creams.
6. Snuggled with this fluff ball. Even after a year, his polka-dot ear still kills me. And look at that teensy little paw.

How was your weekend? Did you survive the onslaught of winter weather?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book Club Reminder

Just a reminder to all our readers... The first discussion of the our book club collaboration with Wit & Spice is coming up! We will be discussing Maria Semple's Where'd You Go Bernadette, photographed here with a convenient ray of heavenly light on the famous yellow velvet chair. We are aiming for the last Wednesday of the month for our book chat. So if you're planning to join in, you may want to start flipping those pages! Because, believe it or not, February is nearly over!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Living Small: Green Products

It's been a few weeks since I've added a post to the Living Small series. Today, I wanted to share my favorite green household products.

But first of all... why go green? Let's face it. Often, green products are harder to find. Fewer stores carry them. (Although, thankfully, more and more are starting to.) Not to mention, green products sometimes are more expensive. The latter was the main obstacle preventing me from buying green household products. Why spend more money when I could just buy Clorox? What if I paid those extra dollars only to discover that the product didn't actually polish my floors, remove the soap scum from my showers, or get dirt stains out of a contractor's work pants?

Despite these worries, I decided to give green household products a try. I started by buying Method floor cleaner. Hesitantly, I squirted it all over the hardwoods and gave them a swipe with the mop...and discovered that wow, this hardwood cleaner didn't just clean the floors, it did an excellent job. The floors gleamed, absent the waxy film other cleaners had given it. From Method floor cleaner, I moved onto other Method products and then onto the Seventh Generation brand.  Now, our cleaning bucket is filled with non-toxic and green goods.

A few of my favorites:

  • Method hardwood cleaner
  • Method wood polish
  • Method countertop cleaner, grapefruit scent
  • Seventh Generation disinfecting wipes
  • Seventh Generation dish soap, lavender scent.
  • Seventh Generation laundry detergent. 
While using green products in our tiny house may not even be a drop-in-the-bucket on the grand scale of environmental issues... it does make our home happier, healthier, safer, and of course cleaner. So, if you've been wondering about using green household products, as a recent convert, I certainly recommend it. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What the Georgia Girl Learned about Winter

Today, as the wind blew me down the sidewalk, I realized I've grown accustomed to the damp, bone-chilling ickiness that is Maryland winters. Not. Teeth-chattering, I leapt into my car, slammed the door, and curled into a little ball. I may or may not have smacked the dash a few times, urging the car heater to get its butt in gear. I won't even go into details about my most recent winter debacle. Let's just say it involved yours truly stranded on a snow-covered road with mascara-stained cheeks. If it hadn't been for a concerned farmer with a Tahoe capable of overcoming said snow-covered road, I would probably still be stranded there today.

Here are a few things I've learned in my attempts to survive Maryland winter despite being a clueless Georgian.

Give up and buy the big poofy coat.
In Georgia, you could easily get by with one or two light, stylish coats in winter. You might need your big wool coat, once or twice a year. But for the most part, that soft little Northface you've worn since October will continue to serve you well in January and February. But in need to buy the big poofy coat. And trust me, you'll be wearing the beast well into March.

Don gloves and scarf.
This second winter lesson I learned much to the benefit of my chapped. bleeding paws. When the wind is howling and sucking every bit of moisture from your skin, it pays to have one more protective layer.

Buy gas when the weatherman and everyone else says "buy gas." 
To be honest, I still don't know why we all do this. I think it has something to do with frost getting into your fuel lines. Either that or we're all preparing to make a quick getaway South.

Invest in fuzzy socks.
Wearing a pair of extra-thick, extra-fuzzy socks not only has kept my footsies warmer but just downright makes me happy inside. Yes, I may have on a tailored, distinguished pencil skirt and blazer... but little do you know, I secretly have absurdly bright and fluffy socks inside my boots.

Protect your flower beds and rose bushes.
This task was completely unnecessary in Georgia. Generally, in that southern state, I could ignore my rose bushes, which grew wild and tangled. In Maryland, however, my roses require a bit more pampering in the form of mulch and a burlap winter blankey.

Buy the salt, the snow shovel, and the windshield scraper.
The three tools for success in the winter months. Mark and I agreed that we feel like "real" homeowners now that we have winter weather equipment. Your coat sleeve and determination will only get you so far when you have a foot of snow on your windshield.

Become addicted to coffee.
This strategy is my personal favorite winter-weather safeguard. At the moment, I'm addicted (once again) to Starbucks' caramel macchiato.

What are some of your winter weather strategies? Because, trust me, I can always use more!

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