This installment: a year of substitute teaching—oy veh! (nf); what happens when the money goes (f); Mill Valley and teenagers, not good (f); setting the intent for improvement goes astray (f); Kinsella on the follies of branding and rural B&Bs (f); and a barbeque gone terribly wrong (f).
Substitute by Nicholson Baker
Subtitled Going to School with a Thousand Kids. I had a love hate relationship with this very fat book. The love part: Baker’s wonderful spirit and skill in reporting on his year working on call for the local school district. The hate part: the nature of public education, with stultifying lessons, rigid schedules, and fancy theories and rules that bleed the joy out of learning. So I had to keep flinging myself at the book, in effect suffering the confusion and tedium of a school day along with indomitable, candid Baker and all those kids. I also realized with a shock that much of present-day curriculum left me in the dust. But love trumped hate, and it was totally worth the discipline for the results: enriching, enlightening, and entertaining to boot.
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel
A peculiar book in which a feckless family discovers that the cushion of money they’ve been floating on is gone gone gone. Edgar and Fern were rebels, eschewing the conventions of the rich, but that loot supported their lifestyle. Will Edgar have to go to work for his father in the steel industry and stop writing his novel? But first, each goes off on a hare brained trip with a new acquaintance of the opposite sex, not realizing the other partner isn’t still home, and the three kids are left alone. They manage for two weeks, kind of. It’s a fable of sorts with considerable humor, but the entitled cluelessness of Edgar and Fern sometimes gave me the willies.
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
Mill Valley—would you believe? For teenagers, at least. It seems so idyllic, what with the Beauty of Nature and all that money, but the combination of adolescent angst and cruelty with self-absorbed, pushy, deluded parents rips the mossy padding right off the surface. One bullied kid leaps off the bridge, another is inveigled into an affair with a teacher, and a bunch end up in a devastating, totally predictable accident. A young, naïve teacher, Molly, tries to make friends with the kids—wrong! The ending: certainly sadder but not especially wiser. (I wouldn’t want to be a teenager—or a teacher—for anything.)
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
Eleanor in Seattle sets the intent to change her ways in small increments but her plan immediately derails when her son Timbo needs to be fetched from school. (His name is an example of the book’s charming quirks: it’s the I Phone’s autocorrect version of “Timothy” and they decided to go with it.) Her excellent husband is a famous but modest hand surgeon however their connubial life hasn’t exactly been working. As Eleanor’s day continues to unravel we learn about her funky upbringing, her stalled career as a graphic artist who did animations for a TV series, and her estranged sister Ivy whose story is baroque in itself; she’s married to a prominent member of New Orleans “royalty.” Eleanor is messy, endearing, impulsive and adventuresome which makes her journey lots of fun.
My (not so) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella
This falls neatly into the subgenre I call intelligent bonbon book. Katie works for terrifying Demeter who appears to Have It All. Of course she doesn’t, and that’s the fun of the story. The field: branding and strategizing, which means doing damage control for absurdly demanding clients. Meanwhile Kate’s parents are struggling to run a farm and when she’s let go after a fiasco at work, she returns home but can’t admit her failure so they think she’s just on sabbatical. She eventually ends up re-branding them right into a wildly successful rural B&B project. Yes, there’s the formulaic wrong guy/right guy plot line (comes with the subgenre category), but it’s balanced by lots of wit and delicious schadenfreude .
Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty
Everything revolves around the Day of the Barbecue in which three families’ lives turn upside down. We don’t learn what actually happened until halfway through—a wonderful device for creating suspense. It’s been raining in Sydney for almost 40 days and everyone’s on edge. Clementine’s a cellist with a nice guy husband, 2 little daughters, and severe audition anxiety. Her childhood “friend” Erika who was foisted on her by her social worker mother is still around and feels like a burden. Erika has a perfectly nice husband as well but Oliver’s a bit of a stick. Their lusty neighbors Vid and Tiffany host the fateful barbeque. After the terrifying accident everyone feels shame and heaps blame on others and things get grim indeed until the sun finally comes out again and there’s resolution of sorts. Great characters, full of surprises. A winner!
Back next week.