Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

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The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Bender, Aimee. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Doubleday, 2010. 292 pp. $25.95

*****

I’m usually not a fan of magical realism, preferring straight fantasy, but I started reading the Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake this evening, went to bed, and got up an hour later to finish it, compelled to find out what happened. What a lovely, lovely book.

When Rose takes a bite of dessert one night, she not only tastes the flavor of the food, but the emotion of the baker behind it, her sad mother. And it keeps happening, to a point of distraction, until she can only eat processed, packaged food. Meanwhile, her reclusive brother has a secret of his own.

I really appreciated the palpability of the novel–the descriptions of food and how things taste, and the emotions associated with the creator of each dish Rose experiences, but also the detailing of her mother’s woodworking, the crazy things her grandmother sends in the mail, the way people smell. It’s a richly sensual book, but doesn’t feel over the top with lush writing.

The setting is not quite a character in it’s own right, but it’s diversity makes its presence the perfect backdrop for this dysfunctional family. I’ve only been to LA twice but could visualize the streets, yet didn’t feel alienated by the references I didn’t get.

The rituals defined within the story: the mother’s insomnia/sleeping in, the father’s morning horn honk, how the reader gets the story and circumstances of her parents meeting and Rose and Joseph’s birth, all appear several times, through different lens, giving a sense of Rose maturing and coming to deeper understanding of herself and her family members.

Rose’s narrative voice was entrancing for me, and one of the reasons I found this unputdownable. She is straight-forward, thoughtful, perhaps a bit flat in places–she doesn’t push for the things she wants: to be seen, by her parents, friends at school, by George–it’s a bit ironic her brother is the one with the skill he develops. I think her voice, and her sensitivity to emotions, make the novel highly appealing. I also found it an easy read in terms of pacing and language, making it highly accessible.

Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon

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Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon

Kleon, Austin. Newspaper Blackout. Harper Perennial, 2010. ISBN 978-0061732973 208 pp. $16.99

*****

I am in love with this book and want to have its babies. Newspaper Blackout is a collection of poems, loosely arranged by theme in a narrative thread that spans childhood through young adulthood, dealing with subjects such as the school locker room, first romance, and the dreariness of the office cubicle. What makes this book unique is the author crafted the poems essentially through editing another’s words–newspaper articles, specifically. After establishing an anchor point, other words were selected to form a poem, and all remaining words blacked out.

The book includes instructions on how to make your own newspaper blackout poems, and several winners from the author’s poetry contest, hosted on his blog. The author recognizes this is a not a new fad, and pays homage to others who have created (or reinvented) from the words of others in the preface, encourages support for the dying newspaper industry, and empowers readers to become poets in the simplest of ways.

Really, this is a highly accessible poetry book for non-poetry fans. It’s incredibly unique, and the poems are well constructed. The poems in this superb collection are by turns profound, funny, clever, silly, and touching. They are touchstones for universal experiences that anyone can relate to (little league, high school politics, desire, deciding on a career).

The poems are evocative, well-composed, and memorable. I had several moments where I caught my breath after reading. Two standouts that are particular favorites of mine:

“Genetics” (“the truth” / is / we’re all about / genetics / This could be an advantage / could be a disadvantage / The / risk / is / family / and / the only value to knowing is / you / can / say / “Gosh, now I understand what / makes me)

“A Teenage Moment of Caution” (A Teenage / moment of / caution / dismissed / when / her two best / friends tell her he / is / the Devil) .

Days of Grace by Catherine Hall

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Days of Grace by Catherine Hall

Catherine Hall. Days of Grace. Viking, 2010. ISBN 978-0670021765 304 pp. $

***

Elderly Nora, certain she is dying from some type of self-diagnosed abdominal or uterine cancer, attempts to absolve her guilt from incidents in her youth by taking in an unwed young mother who has been disowned by her family.

Chapters alternate between the past and present. The present focus on Rose and her baby, their fabrication of family, Nora seeing a doctor about her condition, and the hospice nurse that comes to live with them. Chapters set during the Blitz are concerned with Nora’s adjustments after being separated from her mother and a life of poverty when she is fostered in the country at the home of a pastor, his unhappy wife, and their teenaged daughter Grace. Nora has a crush on Grace that develops into a love she knows to be deeply inappropriate. Following the death of Nora’s mother, still in London where bombs are dropping, the Reverend Rivers shares the truth to Grace’s desire for a sister and the key to Mrs. River’s unhappiness, additional inappropriate behavior cause the two girls to run away to London; Grace, always precocious, falls in love, while Nora is forced to watch from the sidelines.

I anticipated this as a lesbian coming-of-age story set during WWII, but ultimately, this is a novel of atonement, redemption and friendship. It’s neatly structured with many tandems (Nora and Grace, past and present, two mothers, two inappropriate father figures, a twin birth, two deaths). Supporting characters are not very complex, and simply serve as an effective device to help tell Grace and Nora’s story. The slow pace and the reflective nature are likely to be deterrents to some readers. Hall did an adequate job of creating mystery and drama to pull me through the story and find out what secrets Nora is harboring, but I felt more curiosity than empathy while reading.

The shift from one timeline to another is marked only by action, and requires careful reading until it’s clear that chapters are alternating; in the final chapters, past and present come together as Nora opens up about her past to Rose and David.

The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek

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The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek

Antalek, Robin. The Summer We Fell Apart. William Morrow, 2010. ISBN  978-0061782169 384 pp. $

****

As the novel opens, the father, a playwright, has moved out and is galavanting about Europe with his mistress; Finn has just returned home from Europe after confronting his father, about the mistress; Kate is in Florence, teaching; Amy is fascinated and frustrated with the lovely Miriam, an aquaintence of her father’s, who has been sent to live with the family as an exchange student, and George, Amy’s close confident, may or may not be coming out. Marilyn, the mother, is a stage actress who wears a multitude of knotted scarves on her head, coming and going at all hours and leaving the children much to their own devices.

Only the initial chapter focuses on the teen years of the siblings. Subsequent chapters, each focusing on one character, are chronological, but leap forward years. Amy, George, Finn and Kate are only moderately successful at not repeating the mistakes of their theatrical, alcohol parents Richard & Marilyn. Themes of family secrets, alcoholism, love, self-destruction/creation, and demolition/construction tie episodic events together.

The writing is excellent; chapters have wonderful transitions, each one tying back to a previous, to anchor the reader in spite of jumps made in time (each chapter is set several years apart). Cultural allusions are easy touchstones–Holden Caulfield and horror movies that have video game spinoffs are very comprehensible.

Antalek makes the reader strongly empathize with her characters: George’s negotiation of a relationship with the father of a student he advises at his prep school is palpable for non-parents; Finn’s painful struggle with addiction tugs on the heartstrings; Kate’s workoholic personality and need for control coupled with her despair and desire are realistic; Amy’s free spirit is refreshing and believable.

This is a very finely crafted novel of family dysfunction with appeal for fans of Joyce Carol Oates. The lemon tree on the cover is an appropriate metaphor for the theme of the book: sometimes, what appears fresh and vibrant is rotten at the core, and you have to cut straight to the diseased parts and move on from there if you want to revitalize.

Koko Be Good by Jen Wang

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Koko Be Good by Jen Wang

Wang, Jen. Koko Be Good. First Second, 2010. ISBN 978-1596435551 299 pp. $

***

In Koko Be Good, Jon is preparing to uproot his life in CA to move to Peru and save the world with his much older mentor turned lover, Emily. He meets a girl named Koko who challenges him to reconsider his ideals, and his purpose for making the choices he’s made.

Although I read over 200 pages of this book, I struggled throughout to keep everyone, (and the timeline!) straight. The present of the story is Jon waiting for Emily’s return and preparing to leave with her, and Koko’s life, and her friend Faron… but there are flashbacks that aren’t always readily apparent.

I liked how the spread on the open pages, of Jon listening to Emily’s tape recording over and over in the first pages, and I liked how the cell phone panel on page 20 conveys they have little to talk about (maybe it’s just expensive to call long distance from Peru, but I thought it was foreshadowing that this is a relationship that’s run it’s course.

Not all of the art is nearly as effective (although, the drabness of the color scheme is pretty effectively depressing – I sort of expected it to change, as Jon had his epiphany, but it didn’t. The illustration of Jon and Emily reminds me a LOT of a scene in Blankets – maybe curled up in a ying yang position is a classic way to lie with your lover?

Maybe if I plugged on to the end, the story would be resolved–I have an assumption as to where it’s going, and don’t feel compelled to finish.

Roses by Leila Meacham 

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Roses by Leila Meacham 

Meacham, Leila. Roses. Grand Central Publishing, 2010. ISBN  978-0446550000 609 pp. $

***

This is a family saga set in the deep South about families descending from English aristocracy who make their fortunes in cotton, lumber, and… something else. The story begins with octogenarian Mary changing her will in an attempt to break the family curse.

While dramatic, the concerns of seniors (coming to terms with a “3 weeks to live” prognosis after a renal cancer diagnosis, moments of senility, dressed to the nines in pearls, wishing her grandchildren would marry, etc.) may limit the audience. It’s an incredible thick tome that I might want to devour as a beach read when it comes out in paperback, but it lacks stellar writing or unique storyline that might set it apart from other wealthy tycoon type romances spanning generations. High appeal for fans of Nora Roberts or Heather Graham; I put it down after 50 pages.

Finny by Justin Kramon

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Finny by Justin Kramon

Kramon, Justin. Finny. Random House, 2010. ISBN 978-0812980233 366 pp. $

*****

Finny is a character study in the way that reminds me a little of This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn, in that it meanders through Finny’s story in a slice of life sort of way, as opposed to conflict/resolution.

The novel captures about 25? years of Finny’s life, first at home with her mother, nerd of a brother, and controlling father who likes to quote great thinkers and writers, until her brother tattles on the kiss she shares with the neighbor boy, a young man named Earl with whom she forges a fast and strong bond. Finny gets shipped off to boarding school, where she rooms with Judith and befriends the dorm mother in spite of, or maybe because of, a misguided prank.

Earl and Finny seem destined to not be together–after Finny returns home, Earl heads to Paris to reconnect with his mother, and even after a passionate reunion with Finny, feels too obligated to his mother to be with Finny.

When the narrative switches to post college, the pace speeds up, as Finny is just passing time–that section was short, but the “waiting for my real life to begin” tone was a realistic and compelling blend of pain and acceptance.

Throughout her adulthood, Finny struggles with navigating relationships with significant others, betrayal of friends, like getting along with siblings, and figuring out a career and place in the world. She’s an intensely likable character; in fact, ALL of the characters in the story are warm, quirky and flawed. One of the things that bothered me initially about the writing–describing a character as soon as s/he was introduced–bothered me less so as time went on, because it was consistent. And, I think Kramon did a pretty good job writing about a girl, for a boy.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

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Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Chevalier, Tracy. Remarkable Creatures. Harper Collins, 2009. ISBN 978-0007178377 352 pp. $

****

Chevalier’s historical novel is a fictionalization of the circumstances surrounding the first recorded discovery of plesiosaur and ichthyosaurus fossils in Lyme, England–both found by a working class girl named Mary Anning, and credited, initially, to the men the fossils were sold to, before they sold them to museums. Because Mary is A. female and B. working class and C. uneducated, she doesn’t get credit for her work until much championing from a variety of sources.

Mary is befriended by spinster Elizabeth Philpot, recently transplanted from London to Lyme with her sisters when her brother marries, displacing them from the family’s home. Though Mary is just a girl with an eye for finding “curies” Elizabeth senses a kinship, and together they fossil hunt–Mary sells many of her finds as her contribution to her impoverished family’s welfare, while Elizabeth collects and catalogs her specimens.

Narrated by the dual protagonists who are “remarkable creatures” themselves, chapters alternate point of view, beginning with Mary, who, struck by lightning as an infant, relates other moments of “lightning strike” in her life, including fossil discoveries and falling in love. Her vernacular sets her voice apart from the more educated Elizabeth. Mary’s reflections are more action driven, while Elizabeth pontificates on how each individual “leads” with a different part of their body (for her, it’s her prominent jawbone that causes someone to slight her at a ball, while for Mary, it’s her keen eyes) and the difference between fossil hunters (like herself and Mary) and fossil gatherers (like the gentleman on whose bluffs their discoveries are made).

The characterizations are strong, and complex–like Molly, Mary’s mother, who is a shrewd bargainer and smarter than she appears, and Collector Curry, their nickname for a lazy man with no moral compass who is all too happy to lay claim to another’s finds (he gets his payback though, and it’s a bitch.)

One frustration with the book is the timeline. It’s clear Mary is a child at the beginning, and more than 20 years pass, but no dates are given. The author’s note at the end says some liberties were taken with the dates, which is fine–but more of a sense of passing time would have been helpful. A list of further reading at the end include primary sources and indicate meticulous research.

Ultimately, the slow pace and repetitive elements outweigh the fascinating story of how women changed the field of geology, the details of how fossils are excavated and various methods of finding anomalies in a beach strewn with pebbles. The book’s themes of gender roles and science versus religion become repetitive and heavy handed, even against the backdrop of the friendship–and falling out over a man–between the two women.

Details of daily life provide a glimpse into what it meant to belong to the various classes of citizenry in the 1800s, and the sense of rigidity of not being able to rise above one’s station in life may be a very foreign one to American audiences. At times, the book has the feel of a regency romance, as Elizabeth’s youngest sister Margaret attempts to hook a mate, and Mary requires a chaperone (a frenemy!) when fossil hunting with an Oxford professor twice her age, to ensure all propriety is observed.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

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The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

Goodman, Allegra. The Cookbook Collector. Dial Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0385340854 394 pp. $26

*****

Set in the late ’90s during the dot-com bubble, two very different motherless sisters are moving through their twenties. Emily is CEO of Veritech, an online security company, who gently urges her bohemian, grad student sister Jess to get her life together, but Jess is pretty happy dating a treehugger and working at a used bookstore. The owner of Yorick’s is a passionate book collector who made his money in computers early–he’s in love with Jess, and it’s Jess who helps him acquire a magnificent collection of historical cookbooks (George is also a foodie) from a woman who needs to sell her uncle’s collection.

The initial chapter is engaging–Emily has given Jess the paperwork to buy 100 shares of Veritech at the Friends & Family rate (at the cost of $1800, which is exorbitant for a student)–but overall, The Cookbook Collector is slow paced, covering years. Jess borrows from a rabbi involved in a cult-like Jewish sect, promising him return on investment, but sells when the stocks hit $33 (after rising to over $300/share) and donates the money to Save the Trees.

In some ways this is a coming of age novel, although there is (too?) much about other issues of adulthood: managing wealth and running businesses mixing in with navigating relationships and balancing passions.

A colleague pegged it as a “family saga” novel–I think of those as stretching out over generations in a single family, not as concerning themselves with multiple generations of people who have made themselves a sort of family, because of something that ties them together (in this case, it’s sort of the extended families both sisters have collected through their work), but your “family saga” description fits pretty well.

The point of view flows from Emily to her boyfriend Jonathan (another Internet tycoon) to Jess to George to other peripheral characters, like Emily’s oldest friend Orion who works with Jonathan and has a crush on Sorel, another programmer, in spite of living with his nurse girlfriend Molly, who he’s been seeing for 8 years, to Mel, Jonathan’s stressed, 57-year old head of HR… whew! I’d rather the author focused on fewer characters, because sometimes, but the time she comes back to a point of view, I was thinking, wait, who is Mel again? While I can see that the other characters are partially constructed to reveal things about Emily and Jess, I just wanted to know more about the sisters, who are both dating the wrong men and (maybe?) chasing the wrong things. Every time I felt like dropping it, the narrative came back around to Jess, and I was interested again. The ending is satisfactory, with loose ends coming together in a very satisfying way.

The Cookbook Collector doesn’t feel firmly entrenched in the turn of the millennium, in spite of the setting, until nearly the end – no music or fashion or cultural details really stood out to frame the book. Tons of allusions abound, making this an attractive read for book lovers. I don’t think the allusions are necessarily limiting–this is a literary book and doesn’t feel like it will go over the heads of younger readers when philosopher Jess whiles away hours at Yorick’s reading Millay and Whitman.

Librarians will appreciate her attempt to organize George’s acquisitions into categories, and later, her cataloging skills. I especially like how instead of a full book review of a cookbook, or a complete letter (the girls’ mother passed away from cancer when Emily was 10 and Jess 5, and has written letters to be opened on their birthdays), the reader gets but a key line or two, or a description of the ephemera within the pages of a book. And, I liked how I learned things without feeling smugness from the author (ever read The DaVinci Code? one of the things I HATE about that book is the authorial intrusion, that “most people didn’t know X, but LANDGON knew…”). For example, we learn the meaning behind the name of George’s bookstore through Jess’s completion of his bizarre application to work there, where she correctly answers the question about why the store is named Yorick’s.

In some places the writing moves from great to stellar; I love the descriptions of wine, when George has a dinner party with two other book collectors who may also be competing to determine the worth of the cookbook collection, They each bring a bottle of amazing vintage that reflects their personalities (pretty clever!):

“Nick’s Latour was a classic Bordeaux, perfumed with black currant and cedar, perfectly balanced, never overpowering, too genteel to call attention to itself, but too splendid to ignore. Raj’s Petrus, like Raj himself, more flamboyant, flashier, riper, ravishing the tongue. And then the Californian, which was in some ways richest, and in other most ethereal. George was sure the scent was eucalyptus in this Heitz, the flavor creamy with just a touch of mint, so that he could imagine the groves of silvery tress. The Heitz was smooth and silky, meltingly soft, perhaps best suited to George’s tournedos, seared outside succulent and pink within, juices running, mixing with the young potatoes and tangy green beans crisp enough to snap.”

32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter

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32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter

Carter, Ernessa T. 32 Candles. Amistad 2010. ISBN 978-0061957840 352 pp. $

****

This “girl wants boy, girl (finally!) gets boy, girl loses boy” story starts strong, and finishes strong, but is little muddy in the middle.

32 Candles is the story of Davidia Jones, whose mother entertains a variety of gentleman callers–none of them her absent father–for a fee. Davidia, a homegirl in hand-me-downs, earns an unfortunate nickname and is bullied at school. Impersonating Tina Turner, and later, John Hughes films, are an escape from her poverty and torment, and when the local owner of a hair products company runs for political office and installs his attractive children at her high school, Davida pines for James, the handsome scholar quarterback, and daydreams of a happy ending where she is transformed from a duckling into a swan and wins the cute boy.

Her chance comes when she receives an invitation to a party at James’s home, but unlike a John Hughes film, her dress doesn’t make James fall at her feet. Shamed in front of her peers, Davidia runs away from home, escaping to L.A. by hitching a ride with a trucker named Mama Jane who sets Davidia up working in her nephew’s up and coming nightclub. Lo and behold, it turns out Davidia can sing, and she reinvents herself as Davie.

Fifteen years later, the one that got away walks into her gin joint, and falls hard for her. James doesn’t remember her from high school and Davie tries to play hard to get at first, but then gives in. It appears true happiness will be theirs–until Veronica reappears on the scene, and blows Davie’s cover.

The book is structured into four parts: Then, about Davie’s childhood; Now, about L.A.; In Between Then and Now (The Amendment), where we learn Davie is NOT as reliable a narrator as we believed, and Back to Now, where Davie runs around to make amends for the vengeful things she did in the Amended section. Frankly, the amended section makes her both a more authentic and less likable character.

The first third of the book is very readable. Davie is a relatable teen and has a snappy voice at the beginning, but don’t think it’s maintained throughout. The narrative slows down and I sort of lost interest in the making amends part–maybe I was just too annoyed at her not being who I thought she was.

Some great lines:

“Mississippi may have have had some of the lowest standardized test scores in the nation, but I’ll tell you this right now: The kids at my school excelled in creative cruelty. They nicknamed me Monkey Night within three weeks of making my acquaintance, because I was ugly like a monkey and black as night.'”

“Here’s the strange thing about peace: For a teenager it is unrecognizable. Until you lose it.”

The hot pink cover and silhouetted Afro’d girl is very marketable–it reminds me of an iTunes ad. I can see handing 32 Candles to fans of Omar Tyree – it’s a pretty positive urban rags to riches story. There is sexuality and language here, but it’s for effect to drive home the grittiness of Davie’s upbringing (in the case of Mama, hollering for her clients to f@#! her harder) or swoony to punctuate how right she and James are for each other (her first time with James, she gets off as soon as he touches her, and multiple times, huzzah).

The theme of identity remains strong throughout, as Davie reinvents herself, and then has to become someone she likes and can live with, and getting James back is less central to her happiness than just being a good person that she’s not ashamed to be. She reconnects and has a sort of reconciliation with her mother, and discovers the sad truth of her parenthood. The ending is predictable, like a John Hughes movie, but it’s forgivable, given the protagonist’s love for anything starring Molly Ringwald. A strong debut novel.