Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Lyndsey: I had very high hopes when I first set eyes (and ears) on Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette (a comedic novel by a former Arrested Development writer? Yes please!), and being the amazing storyteller she is, it did not disappoint. This hilarious and heartfelt narrative is brilliantly sewn together through a series of emails, faxes, handwritten notes, FBI documents and more as 15-year-old Bee Branch tries to solve the apparent mental breakdown and disappearance of her mother, Bernadette, just before a family trip to Antarctica. Bernadette loathes living in Seattle, and the only thing she detests more are the other mothers at her daughter’s private school, whom she aptly calls “gnats.” In audiobook form, these entitled women literally come across as pesky, incessant gnats in your ear. Through it all, I admired Bernadette’s idiosyncrasies (even the most social individuals will begin to associate with her reclusive tendencies) and I sympathized with the everyday marital struggles she encounters with her husband, while the wise-beyond-her-years Bee easily won a place in my heart.
How to Be Alone
Alex: In the first paragraph of The Atlantic’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, Caleb Crain references Franzen’s infamous 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream,” better (and more ominously) known as “The Harper’s Essay.” In the introduction to How to be Alone, Franzen confronts the long shadow cast by that essay, and the way it was interpreted at the time; suffice to say that this collection’s revised and expanded version of “Perchance to Dream” has been retitled “Why Bother.”
Franzen has long been viewed as the modern “Great American Writer,” and the combination of curmudgeonly elitism and pleasant readability the title implies comes through even in his nonfiction. He turns his considerable intelligence and philosophic insight to the decline of American literary culture, yes, but also to things like the ravages of Alzheimer’s and to the hypocrisy of a pilloried tobacco industry. His natural cadence—both in syntax and in narration—make these essays a pleasure to listen to, even when he seems, at times, to be being deliberately contrarian. Ultimately, Franzen’s pure adoration of the written (and, in this case, spoken) word wins out over any cynicism; while it’s easy to read “Why Bother” as a dismissive turn of phrase, in Franzen’s case it’s also an earnest question.
The Universe Versus Alex Woods
Ashley: The Universe Versus Alex Woods may seem like an overly dramatic title, but I assure you Extence’s debut lives up to its name. On one level, it dramatizes the way all teens feel at some point—that the universe is out to destroy all their hopes and dreams, personally—and Alex Woods is certainly no exception. On another level, it describes how the cosmos literally seems to have it out for Alex ever since he survived a meteorite smashing into him when he was ten (because of this, he suffers epileptic seizures). On another level still, the grandiose title fits because the novel grapples with mortality and the ethics of euthanasia (Alex’s best friend, the cranky, widowed, and terminally ill Mr. Peterson, wishes to be taken out of his misery, but can’t be due to laws against assisted suicide in England). That all sounds very dark, but again I assure you Alex Woods is not—the friendship between Alex and Mr. Peterson is reminiscent of the one found in Pixar’s Up, with similar emotional ups and downs. While there’s no talking dog in Extence’s novel, there are funny scenes involving tarot cards from Alex’s fortune-telling mother, and Alex starts a book club called the Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut. Alex Woods is quirky and charming and easily one of the best books I’ve read in recent years.
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Joey: Guns, Germs and Steel is a monumentally impressive attempt at explaining the entire course of human history. Jared Diamond’s training is as an evolutionary biologist, and he applies that knowledge to humanity with both elegance and eloquence. Diamond is most concerned with answering a very specific question—not simply how did human society develop, but why did it develop differently on different continents and in different cultures. Through both broad examinations of trends and specific case studies, he shows that it was our environment and the availability of the resources therein that most powerfully affected the cultural and societal evolution of our species.
What most impressed me about this book is Diamond’s ability to express incredibly broad and complex patterns in our history in ways that are not only easy for the layperson to understand, but are actually fascinating to read. He has a knack for expressive imagery and paints a beautiful picture of the changes on our planet, even when sprinting through thousands of years of human history in a few short pages. This is a book that can be read and enjoyed by anyone, whether a history buff or just a fan of great writing.