Tag Archives: Caltech

No Icing on This Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel by Aimee Bender (Doubleday, $25.95)

“I wondered what he knew about the family; what he didn’t know.   What family he lived in.   My mind wandered around.”

This novel begins with a charming and unique premise.   A young girl, Rose Edelstein, finds that by eating food prepared by others she can taste (experience) the moods and feelings of the preparers.   This has particular relevance when it comes to her mother’s sadness, but later her guilt.   Her mother is having an affair, the knowledge of which Rose wishes she did not possess.

“The guilt in the beef had been like a vector pointing in one direction…  I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will.   Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life…  I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.”

This discomfort on the part of our protagonist also affects the reader; at least, it affected this reader.   Rose has been given a power she does not want and it makes  her life messy and unpleasant.   At one point, early in the story, she is hospitalized after raving about wanting to get rid of her mouth.   If she didn’t have her mouth in her face, she wouldn’t have to eat and wouldn’t have to feel what others are feeling.

“Over the course of several packed days, I’d tasted my mother’s affairs and had (a) conversation with my father…  I was not feeling good about any of it…”

Rose has a boring attorney father, a brother who isolates and who is soon departing for college, and an unhappy mother who regularly disappears for a couple of hours of errands – which is when she meets her lover.   She lives in a household of people who hardly communicate; people who regularly ask questions of each other that go unanswered.   This also applies to others in Rose’s life.   For example, she asks her Spanish teacher, “How was your weekend?” before her instructor turns away and walks off to roam the aisles of the junior high school classroom.

Aimee Bender’s writing style is clipped; words often appear to be missing from sentences, from paragraphs, from pages.   Maybe the words are missing because, in this imaginary world, humans simply don’t understand each other – relatives or strangers – and therefore, are not competent about talking, listening, responding.   Perhaps the oddest of all things is that this story is not set in an isolated small town (Mayberry, if you will).   No, it is set in an earlier day Los Angeles, where mega communication was already the order of the day.

There must be an intended message buried somewhere in this 292-page novel that I missed.   After its charming opening pages, Lemon Cake seemed to immediately bog down.   It read more like a novella or an overly extended short story than a true novel.

Perhaps I just don’t have the taste for this recipe.   Lemon Cake left me feeling empty and sad and confused and hungry for something with some heft.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Wesley the Owl

Wesley

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O’Brien (Atria Books, $16.00, 256 pages)

“Wesley changed my life.   … I wondered if he was actually an angel who had been sent to live with me and help me through all the alone times.   He comforted me; many times I cried into his feathers and told him my troubles, and he tried to understand.”

These are words that come near the end of this true love story about an adopted barn owl named Wesley, who lived for 19 years with author Stacey O’Brien.   O’Brien was a young biologist, trained in wild animal behavior at Caltech in Pasadena, when she adopted the baby owl with the injured wing, knowing that he would not survive in the wild.

What O’Brien did not know at that time was that she was literally following in the footsteps of her maternal grandmother, who had adopted a barn owl that had been injured by dogs and had named it Weisel.   This explained the long-time mystery of why her grandmother had lived in a home filled with owl dolls and figurines.

O’Brien’s story takes us from Wesley’s adoption at a mere four days old to his death from cancer after what amounted to a remarkably long life for a barn owl.   Anyone who owns a cat or dog will identify with O’Brien’s discoveries about her “wild animal.”   Wesley loves to preen and groom, to tell her about the events of the day, and to attack “prey” such as pencils and film cannisters.   Wesley also understands the difference between words like tonight, tomorrow and (in) two hours.   Most importantly, Wesley attaches himself to his owner as a lifelong surrogate mate, since barn owls have but one partner in life (although Wesley was often tempted by the wild female barn owls who hovered outside the window of his San Diego canyon area apartment).

Wesley teaches O’Brien about trust, commitment and love; as she puts it, “It’s the Way of the Owl.   You commit for life, you finish what you start, you give your unconditional love, and that is enough.”

O’Brien learns, via Wesley’s life and death, that “If all I had to give was love, that was enough.”   Her life was forever changed by knowing Wesley, the intelligent and loving barn owl, and the reader is blessed by having access to the story of this very remarkable and very special relationship.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

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