Friday, May 24, 2013

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple and Last Night at Chateau Marmont by Lauren Weisberger

First, some book news from my home state of Iowa about the three bookstores they have in Sioux City (I am so envious!):
The Sioux City Journal profiled three bookstores in the Sioux City,
Iowa, area
all of which use hybrid bookstore models.
In Sioux City, Book People
the back of the store, a legacy of Chriss Camenzend, who in 2003 bought
the store, which was founded in 1977, and has worked in the travel
business more than 40 years. "It was one of my favorite places to shop,"
she told the paper. "I just didn't want to see it close after that many
In Cherokee, Iowa, the Book Vine, which
opened in 2007, features wine from around the world. Owner Mollie
Loughlin commented: "We can't compete with the Barnes & Nobles of the
world. We have to create our own niche." The Book Vine has "high
ceilings, a fireplace and sliding ladder [that] give the
2,000-square-foot store a distinct ambiance, providing a quiet place to
read," the paper wrote. "To get customers to linger a little longer,
Loughlin stocks wine accessories, stationery, a wide array of jewelry
and other novelty items throughout the store."
In Sheldon, Iowa, Sara Beahler and her husband opened Prairie Moon Books in 2007. Last year, the couple bought
a struggling clothing store and moved the bookstore and coffee bar into
the clothing store's building. As if those weren't enough businesses,
they also opened a bicycle shop in the basement. The small retail empire
is now called Contents.
Beahler said customer service is the store's most important offering:
"We remember what book we sold you a week ago. We know what to
recommend. You don't get that service when you shop online or shop at
the big-box stores."
Second, Powells, my favorite bookstore in Oregon is undergoing renovations!
Powell's Books, Portland, Ore., unveiled plans
for a renovation of its flagship store at 1005 West Burnside St. next
year. The project will focus on "seismically updating the southeast
quadrant of the city block the store occupies, commonly known as the
Green and Blue Rooms," according to the bookseller.
"This is the last piece of a long-term movement towards fully upgrading
the entire Burnside Building," noted Powell's CEO Miriam Sontz in a memo
to staff. "Back in 1990, we started the project by building a
three-story building in the northeast quadrant of the block. From there
we upgraded the parking structure and the Gold and Coffee Rooms in 1997.
In 2000, we upgraded the old Orange Room, replacing it with the
seismically upgraded four-story building."
The renovation will maintain the location's current footprint and
one-story design. In addition to the necessary seismic measures, the
project includes new lighting, new windows and a new roof. The design
review process will take place during the summer in preparation for work
to begin next January. During construction, the store will continue
normal operations. The Green and Blue Rooms will be closed, with books
currently in those areas temporarily moved to other locations in the
This past Thursday morning I picked up my copy of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria  Semple, for my usual morning hour of reading, when I discovered that I could NOT put it down. I read it all the way through in roughly 7 hours and some odd minutes, which is unusual for me, because I prefer to savor books and read several at a time. 
But Semple has created a story told through modern methods, such as emails, letters, texts and mundane items like invoices and clinical notes, that truly rivets the reader, taking you on a journey of discovery that leaves the reader, like the characters, breathless by the final chapter. 
It's the story of genius architect Bernadette, her husband Elgin and their daughter Bee as they attempt to build a life together in Seattle, though Bernadette, in particular, hates Seattle and the Pacific NW, and, as a Californian, is somewhat of a judgmental, arrogant snob.  Along with those traits comes an eccentric way of living, where Bernadette buys an old children's reformatory that is nearly condemned and then lives outside of it in an airstream trailer her daughter dubs "Petite Trianon" after Marie Antoinettes little escape place when she lived in Versaille. 
Elgin is also a genius, but with computers, so he works for Microsoft once the company buys his own robotic software startup. He's a bit of a cypher, but, like most men, seems to stumble along making mistakes with emotional issues and dealing with his family on a daily basis. While Elgie, as he's called, isn't good with people, other than nerds who speak his language, Bernadette is too cynical, angry and sarcastic to get along with any of her neighbors, so she becomes a misanthrope and hides herself away behind sunglasses and snark, while her neighbors plot and gossip about her.
Unfortunately, Bernadette has some seriously crazy neighbors who drive her to retaliate in cruel, if hilarious, fashion. Bee, who was born premature with a heart defect, adores her mother and has come to understand her rants and raves, but still considers her a great parent, since her father is away most of the time. Following some very Seattle circumstances that go wrong, Bernadette's husband tries to have her committed to a mental institution and at the same time ends up getting his admin assistant pregnant, though he doesn't love her and is still in love with his brilliant wife. Meanwhile, Bernadette thinks she has hired a virtual assistant in India, when in reality, she's given all her financial information to the Russian Mafia, who are coming to Seattle to kill her and take over her identity. The FBI and local authorities show up to try and catch the RM in action, only to find that Bernadette had no idea what was going on and is in the middle of an "intervention" to get her committed.
While the whole family was supposed to take a trip to Antartica, Bernadette ends up escaping all her troubles on the ship while her daughter is sent to a fancy boarding school and her husband tries to figure out where it all went wrong.  Soon, Bee has gathered interviews with old professors and collegues of her mothers, along with emails and texts and invoices, in order to make a book that she believes will lead her to find her mother, who is considered dead after drinking too much and supposedly going overboard on the ship. When Bee and Elgie undertake the journey to Antarctica for "closure," things wind up being even more complex than previously thought. 
If I had one criticism about this book, and it's a minor one, it would be that Bernadette doesn't actually disappear until the last third of the book, so we are treated to all these materials about her prior to that, which really isn't a bad thing, since they're all so interesting. But it would have been great if Bee and Elgie had been looking for her before the book was almost over. I realize that is somewhat of a plot style choice, but still, it is just a wee bit frustrating. Still, the book has a wonderfully happy ending, and we're left feeling as if we actually know these people, and have learned to love them, quirks and all. A solid A, and I would recommend this book to those who enjoy satire that is somewhere between Voltaire and David Sedaris. 
Last Night at the Chateau Marmont was a book that I've read for the library's Tuesday night book group, and I was expecting it to be much more literary than it actually was. As it is, the book read like a cross between a Helen Fielding novel and a Candace Bushnell book, with a touch of Danielle Steel thrown in for good measure. Melodramatic, pot-boiler, chick-lit, whatever you want to call it, the story revolves around Brooke, a redhead who is a bit ditzy but has great stylish friends, and Julian, her musician husband, whom she's been working two jobs as a nutritionist to support for 5 years. 
Here's the official blurb review from B&N:
Brooke loved reading the dishy celebrity gossip rag Last Night. That is, until her marriage became a weekly headline.
Brooke was drawn to the soulful, enigmatic Julian Alter the very first time she heard him perform “Hallelujah” at a dark East Village dive bar.
Now five years married, Brooke balances two jobs—as a nutritionist at NYU Hospital and as a consultant to an Upper East Side girls’ school, where privilege gone wrong and disordered eating run rampant—in order to help support her husband’s dream of making it in the music world.
Things are looking up when after years of playing Manhattan clubs and toiling as an A&R intern, Julian finally gets signed by Sony. Although no one’s promising that the album will ever hit the airwaves, Julian is still dedicated to logging in long hours at the recording studio. All that changes after Julian is asked to perform on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno—and is catapulted to stardom, literally overnight. Amazing opportunities begin popping up almost daily—a new designer wardrobe, a tour with Maroon 5, even a Grammy performance.
At first the newfound fame is fun—who wouldn’t want to stay at the Chateau Marmont or visit the set of one of television’s hottest shows? Yet it seems that Brooke’s sweet husband—the man who can’t handle hot showers and wears socks to bed—is increasingly absent, even on those rare nights they’re home together. When rumors about Brooke and Julian swirl in the tabloid magazines, she begins to question the truth of her marriage and is forced to finally come to terms with what she thinks she wants—and what she actually needs.
I found the book easy reading, and fun in spots, though the constant detailed description of every scrap of clothing the couple wears, and the shoes, and the coats, etc, got to be a bit much, and was tedious by the time I finished the novel. The thinly-veiled celebrity send-ups were fun, but nothing revelatory, and I found Julians weaknesses, (and they were many) to be annoying and unrealistic. I wasn't surprised at all when he got 'caught' with another woman, and I wasn't surprised that his manager had the whole thing set up. Neither was I at all surprised that the couple got back together. Love conquers all in books like this, especially when there is fame and fortune on the line. The prose was decent, if a bit breathless in spots, and the plot moved along at a metered pace, only slowing for the endless fashion descriptions. I'd give this novel a B-, with the caveat that it is what it is, a chicklit feelgood book that runs along the same lines as a Candance Bushnell novel. Sweet, but not horridly so, not enough to give you a cavity or diabetes. I'd recommend it to those who like a light, fluffy beach read.

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