Maria Semple’s Seattle

I’m late on reading the book Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, which was one of the best books of 2012. I’m on a books-that-take-place-in-Seattle kick and this is one of the top hits of a list I found on goodreads. I won’t go into a review, I’ll just say that I thought it was hilarious, compelling, and heart-warming. And here are some of my favorite quotes (not all of which have to do with Seattle):

“My first trip up here, to Seattle, the realtor picked me up at the airport to look at houses. The morning batch were all Craftsman, which is all they have here, if you don’t count the rash of view-busting apartment buildings that appear in inexplicable clumps, as if the zoning chief was asleep at his desk during the sixties and seventies and turned architectural design over to the Soviets.
Everything else is Craftsman. Turn-of-the-century Craftsman, beautifully restored Craftsman, reinterpretation of Craftsman, needs-some-love Craftsman, modern take on Craftsman. It’s like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance. You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won’t matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on the lot.” p.25

“Hovering above me was the Chihuly chandelier. Chihulys are the pigeons of Seattle. They’re everywhere, and even if they don’t get in your way, you can’t help but build up a kind of antipathy toward them.” p.62

“‘I can’t listen to this!’ I smacked the radio off.
‘I know it’s horrific,’ mom said. ‘But you’re old enough. We live a life of privilege in Seattle. That doesn’t mean we can literally switch off these women, whose only fault was being born in the Congo during a civil war. We need to bear witness.’ She turned the radio back on.
I crumpled in my seat and fumed.
‘The war in Congo rages on with no end in sight,” the announcer said. “And now comes word of a new campaign by the soldiers, to find the women they have already raped and re-rape them.’
‘Holy Christ on a cross!’ Mom said. ‘I draw the line at re-raping.’ And she turned off NPR.” p.65

“‘I need you to know how hard it is for me sometimes.’ Mom had her hand on mine.
‘What’s hard?’
‘The banality of life,’ she said. ‘But it won’t keep me from taking you to the South Pole.'” p.81

“People say Seattle is one of the toughest cities in which to make friends. They even have a name for it, the ‘Seattle freeze.’ I’ve never experienced it myself, but coworkers claim it’s real and has to do with all the Scandinavian blood up here. Maybe it was difficult at first for Bernadette to fit in. But eighteen years later, to still harbor an irrational hatred of an entire city?” p.93

“Seattle is the only city where you step in shit and you pray, Please God, let this be dog shit. Anytime you express consternation as to how the U.S. city with more millionaires per capita than any other would allow itself to be overtaken by bums, the same reply always comes back. ‘Seattle is a compassionate city.'” p.128

“We entered a tunnel. The guide standing in the front of the bus got on the PA system and started rhapsodizing about when the tunnel was built, who won the contract to build it, how long it took, which president approved it, how many cars go through it every day, etc. I kept waiting for him to reveal its greatness, like maybe it was self-cleaning, or made out of recycled bottles. Nope, it was just a tunnel. Still, you couldn’t help but feel happy for the guide, that if things ever got really bad, head always have the tunnel.” p.257

“‘Have you ever hear that the brain is a discounting mechanism?’
‘Let’s say you get a present and open it and it’s a fabulous diamond necklace. Initially, you’re delirious with happiness, jumping up and down, you’re so excited. The next day, the necklace still makes you happy, but less so. After a year, you see the necklace, and you think, Oh, that old thing. It’s the same for negative emotions. Let’s say you get a crack in your windshield and you’re really upset. Oh no, my windshield, it’s ruined, I can hardly see out of it, this is a tragedy! But you don’t have enough money to fix it, so you drive with it. In a month, someone asks you what happened to your windshield, and you say, What do you mean? Because your brain has discounted it.’
‘The first time I walked into Kennedy’s house,’ I said, ‘it had that horrible Kenndy-house smell because her mother is always frying fish. I asked Kennedy, What’s that gross smell? And she was, like, What smell?’
‘Exactly,’ Dad said. ‘You know why your brain does that?’
‘It’s for survival. YOu need to be prepared for novel experiences because often they signal danger. If you live in a jungle full of fragrant flowers, you have to stop being so overwhelmed by the lovely smell because otherwise you couldn’t smell a predator. That’s why your brain is considered a discounting mechanism. It’s literally a matter of survival.'” p.288

“Halfway through this speech, it dawned on me that Ellen Idelson was a contractor. She was performing contractor Kabuki. It’s a ritual in which (a) the contractor explains in great detail the impossibility of the job you’ve asked him to do, (b) you demonstrate extreme remorse for even suggesting such a thing by withdrawing your request, and (c) he tells you he’s found a way to do it, so (d) you owe him one for doing what he was hired to do in the first place.” p.322

“More relevant was the cover sheet, which set forth the psychological profile of candidates best suited to withstand the extreme conditions at the South Pole. They are ‘individuals with blase attitudes and antisocial tendencies,’ and people who ‘feel comfortable spending lots of time alone in small rooms,’ ‘don’t feel the need to get outside and exercise,’ and the kicker, ‘can go long stretches without showering.’
For the past twenty years I’ve been in training for overwintering at the South Pole! I knew I was up to something.” p.323

“I’ll miss the afternoons when I’d go out on our lawn and throw my head back. The sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us. Every feeling I ever knew was up in that sky. Twinkling joyous sunlight; airy, giggling cloud wisps; blinding columns of sun. Orbs of gold, pink, flesh, utterly cheesy in their luminosity. Gigantic puffy clouds, welcoming, forgiving, repeating infinitely across the horizon as if between mirrors; and slices of rain, pounding wet misery in the distance now, but soon on us, and in another part of the sky, a black stain, rainless.
The sky, it came in patches, it came in layers, it came swirled together, and always on the move, churning, sometimes whizzing by. It was so low, some days I’d reach out for the flow, like you, Bee, at your first 3-D movie, so convinced was I that I could grab it, and then what–become it.
All those ninnies have it wrong. The best thing about Seattle is the weather. The world over, people have ocean views. But across our ocean is Bainbridge Island, an evergreen curb, and over it the exploding, craggy, snow-scraped Olympics.” p.325


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