Tag Archives: schools

Youthful Accident or Racial Incident: Upper West Side Story by Susan Pashman

cover imageIn Upper West Side Story, a first novel by philosophy professor and former attorney Susan Pashman, two families in Manhattan are pitted against each other after a tragic accident (possibly a crime) goes from the personal to the political.

The case of two eighth-grade boys – best friends, one white and one black, both in the gifted class and on the chess team – just horsing around or maybe not? – while returning a weekend class trip to Washington, D.C. is nothing like a recent incident of the three black students who opened fire on workers in a Brooklyn school cafeteria, thinks Bettina, who narrates most of the story. Max, the white eighth-grader who becomes a public figure overnight is her son.

Bettina’s a political liberal – an academic – who prides herself on raising her two children – Max and his younger sister Nellie – to be comfortable in a racially diverse, urban environment. Bettina’s husband, Stephen – a city planner enmeshed in local politics – can see clearly how Max and Max’s best friend Cyrus are being used as pawns in the game of racial politics played by the mayor, the district attorney, and most of all the most vocal local activist on racial issues – City Council member Marcus Hake, an African-American fighting for social justice and against racial inequality under the law.

Here’s an excerpt from Upper West Side Story to give you an idea of it:

I stood up to face Stephen, a lump swelling in my throat. “It is simple,” I cried. “I can’t stand all this conniving and second-guessing when the truth is perfectly obvious. It’s always some stupid game with you politicians. But they can’t play games with our son, Stephen. That’s just not going to happen!”

I tore down the hall to our bedroom and stared out at the city. Down every street, behind every window, lives were being ruined – choked by greed, poisoned by ambition, obliterated by self-interest. The city stared back at me, a professor of political theory, a stalwart campaigner for a more just world.

“Sweetheart,” Stephen said gently He stood in the doorway to our room. “I know this could be a bit hard on Max, but it’ll be worse if we try to head it off. Hake will get the press revved up and they’ll mix this in with the cafeteria case even if the D.A. does nothing. It’s better to let them investigate and find nothing. If we get in his way, Hake will blow things up as he always does.

“The mayor’s obviously desperate for a bone to throw to him. The D.A., I’m sure just wants to keep up the office’s image as tough on crimes against kids. She won’t be as eager as the mayor is to yield to Hake. It’s a game, as you said, but I think we have to let it run its course.”

“I won’t have our son made a scapegoat! I won’t let those games get anywhere near him. We owe Max some peace!”

I turned back to the window. I felt a tear start down my cheek and brushed it aside. “They have to leave us in peace, Stephen. You and me, but most of all Max.”

Author Susan Pashman has clearly thought a lot about race, especially in terms of schools and parenting. In January, she started a Kids & Race blog where she posts on these issues. Writing a nuanced novel about a family in crisis allows her to delve more deeply into the complexity of reality vs. theory and imagine what’s happening out of the public eye when an event that you’re used to reading about in the news hits home.

Harvard Square Editions is a publishing house formed by and for Harvard University alumni to publish literary fiction with a social or environmental message. The message in Upper West Side Story that racial politics don’t tell the whole story occasionally overpowers the fiction, but the multilayered story of family, city, and the law, told in the voices of Bettina and Max is moving, and the clash of Bettina’s academic theories and liberal ideals with her maternal desire to protect and defend her son is realistic and thought-provoking.

Upper West Side Story
Pashman, Susan
Harvard Square Editions
May 28, 2015
978-1-941861-03-5
276 pp.
$22.95, softcover

DIsclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review. (I’m not part of the blog tour going on now, but check out it out for a chance to win one of 15 copies of Upper West Side Story.)

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Audio) @HachetteAudio

cover image of Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette, a first novel by Maria Semple, narrated by Kathleen Wilhoite, is a audiobook bargain at $14.98. It came highly recommended around the blogosphere, but at first the story seemed too self-consciously quirky and to hold back an annoying amount of information. I also thought the narrator’s voice for fifteen-year-old Bee (who tells a large portion of the story in her own words) would irritate me. (It seemed too babyish, and I kept thinking Bee was ten years old or so until something reminded me she was a teenager was planning to go to boarding school the next year.) The volume level from one character’s voice to another’s seemed to vary more widely than usual, too – screeches and yells bursting into my ear at high volume and then low conversational tones – so that I found myself adjusting the volume up and down.

But after an hour or so, I settled in and enjoyed Kathleen Wilhoite’s enthusiasm and liveliness. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is her first audiobook narration. It’s also the first one I’ve listened to where the narrator can actually sing. There is one scene in the story where Bee hears the song Holy Night sung at a concert and the author quotes a couple of verses and the chorus as Bee listens, rapt. Kathleen Wilhoite sings the whole thing beautifully, instead of reading the lyrics aloud as I’ve heard other narrators do. She even nails that impossibly high note while having to keep the volume restrained.

Along with Bee’s point of view, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a compilation of documents such as report cards, email correspondence, FBI files, magazine articles, and transcripts of recorded conversations, that slowly come together to form a complete picture of the missing Bernadette — who from one viewpoint is an artistic genius architect, from another a depressed agoraphobe, and from yet another, a crazy recluse and neglectful mother. The fragmented narrative structure can make the story seem to jump around a bit, as it shows readers the same event from several angles. Patience is required from the reader before all the bits of information begin to cohere.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette has a lot of references to Microsoft – where Bernadette’s husband works as a software developer/genius – and to Seattle, where Bee attends the progressive Gaylor Street School. Excerpts from Bee’s latest Gaylor Street School report card appear at the start of the book:

“Bee is a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and humor.”

“Bee is unafraid to ask questions. Her goal is always deep understanding of a given topic.”

Bee’s excellent report card leads her to ask her parents if they remember their long-ago promise to give her whatever she wanted for a graduation gift if she gets perfect grades all the way through school. (“I do remember,” says Bernadette, weakly. “It was to ward off further talk of a pony.”) Bee excitedly requests a family trip to Antarctica. The mere idea practically sends agoraphobic Bernadette off the deep end. But, loving Bee, and wanting to honor her promise, Bernadette begins to plan for the trip, enlisting the help of a virtual personal assistant in India. Through the documents presented in the book, readers see Bernadette’s panic grow as the date for departure looms, and the once close-knit family begins to break apart under the strain.

If you liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, a quirky quest story out of San Francisco about Google and books, you might also like Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which has a quirky daughter on a quest to understand what happened to her quirky mother, with insider jokes about Microsoft and Seattle (minus the fantasy elements of MP24HB.) The humor in Where’d You Go, Bernadette also reminded me of the light/dark humor in The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, with its family dynamic of borderline-crazy parents and resourceful children.

For a chuckle, watch the book trailer of the author (a screenwriter for the TV show Arrested Development) as she tries to explain to booksellers, critics, fellow authors, and random people on the street what Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about.

Listen to an excerpt from Where’d You Go, Bernadette from Hachette Audio here.

Read the AudioFile review of Where’d You Go, Bernadette here.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Semple, Maria
Wilhoite, Kathleen (narr.)
9781478978947
9.5 hours on 9 CDs
$14.98 US/$16.50 CAN

Disclosure: I borrowed this audiobook from the public library.

Other opinions on the audiobook edition of Where’d You Go, Bernadette (all excellent):
Bermudaonion
BookHooked
Care’s Online Book Club
A Library of One’s Own
That’s What She Read
You’ve Gotta Read This

Sound Bytes badgeThis review is linked up to Sound Bytes, a weekly link-up of audiobook reviews at Devourer of Books.

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