I’ve Looked at Life From Both Sides Now

I just finished reading two books that couldn’t be more different: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. Here’s how this happened. I had no intentions of ever reading the Semple book because the cover looks like Chick Lit and I had never heard of her. I passed by that book a thousand times in Target and on Barnes and Nobel tables and never gave it the time of day. The only reason I read it was because a group of woman I work with were out together drinking a lot of wine and decided it would be fun to start a book club (mainly to have an excuse to get together again and drink a lot of wine). I am not out to this group (they know I’m a lesbian but they don’t know I’m a writer).

Someone, I’ll call her J. (yes, yes, her first name starts with J), pulled out her iPhone and looked up the ten most popular books for book clubs. She’s practical in that way. No one there had read any of the books. I had read seven of them. Eyebrows were raised. Wine was gulped. Suddenly I felt like I was in 4th grade and some popular kid was calling me a brain in a way that meant, weird, strange, unattractive, and looser. I felt nervous and exposed. I wasn’t prepared to reveal my true self, to rip off my cape and put on my Clark Kent glasses.

So I joked it off. Called myself a book nerd. I’m sure the word writer never crossed my lips.  After looking at the covers of the other 3 books (damn that iPhone comes in handy) the group decided on Bernadette. At the time I had just started reading The Stone Diaries. I always wanted to read it because 1) it won a Pulitzer, 2) years ago I picked up Swann in a Harvard Square bookstore and loved it, even though no one I know has ever read it, and 3) I was shocked to learn on the inside flap of the book that Carol Shields died in 2003 at the age of 68 and I thought how did I not know this and then I thought, I might be 68 before I even get a book published.

And thus, I was reading two books at once. Semple’s book was a wild ride from start to finish. Told through emails, letters, and the narration of Bee, Bernadette’s 15 year-old daughter, it is full of pop-culture, modern angst, and laugh-out-loud material, taking on everything from Microsoft to TED talks to the Rockettes. Shield’s book moves with intensity and the details of daily life from Manitoba in 1905 to Florida in the 90’s sometime, following her main character through birth, childhood, marriage, motherhood, work and old age. Reading these books was like the difference between taking a shower and taking a bath. And I loved them both.

Carol Shields takes point of view and blows it to smithereens. I was amazed by this, and by her attention to the details of life and to her ability to reveal depth and insights about her characters and her gorgeous way with words. And Semple pulled off the impossible – using high stakes humor to uncover moving, human moments, pain and ultimately redemption. I think these two books should be taught side-by-side in some writing guru’s workshop on an island in Puget Sound where you pay an obscene amount of money and get fed organic meals and hear a New York City agent tell you how to market a mash-up of these books, and someone famous reads poetry in front of a giant screen showing old episodes of Ellen.

Or just read them both when you get a chance, preferably at the same time. But don’t tell anyone in your book club.

Do you have any opposite pairings of books you love?




October 1, 2013 · 11:28 am

2 responses to “I’ve Looked at Life From Both Sides Now

  1. WSW

    Thanks for the recommendations. At the moment I, too, have two books going, not my favorite way of reading, but sometimes it just turns out that way. They’re complementary rather than opposing, but they make an interesting pair: Ulysses (I have finally taken it on, and it far easier going than I had thought, well actually, feared) and The Master by Colm Tiobin, which is a fictionalized account of the life of Henry James. Both are very internal, though Joyce’s stream of consciousness approach is markedly different from Tiobin’s brand of interior monologue. Fascinating to see how two masters go at narrative, and the language is just gorgeous in both. Verdict: if you want to get up to your eyeballs in the Irish, this is the way to go.

  2. I have always wanted to tackle Ulysses but just chalked it up to a basic masochistic tendency. I am definitely going to check out the Tiobin book-thanks for the suggestion. You’re in an MFA program now, yes? Bravo!! How does it feel?

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