Tag Archives: college

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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Glory Days

If there’s one thing you learn as an undergraduate, it’s that trouble can always be found on a college campus.   More than a few of us will recognize facets of our own schools in Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost by Richard Rushfield.   Rushfield here writes of his years at Hampshire College “in the twilight of the 80’s.”

Hampshire, in Massachusetts, comes off as the east coast version of U.C. Santa Cruz.   At this college in the woods there  were no grades, students could design their own learning program and attending classes was – well – optional.Don't Follow MeRushfield majored in drugs, alcohol and trouble.   He found his way into the major trouble-making group on campus, the Supreme D—s.   The Supremes sound a bit like the Yellow Turban Alliance from my own first college – a legendary group whose exploits may have been real or fictional.   (Very real or highly fictional.)

The first few dozen pages of Don’t Follow can irritate the reader due to the fact that the young Rushfield is not easy to relate to.   But whether you wish to or not, you’ll soon be laughing at the exploits of Richard and his friends.   At one point in the memoir, they’re already in trouble (with administrators and their fellow students) when they decide to form a 3-member fraternity.   Oh, they decide to do this since it will make them eligible for the social activity funds (party money) distributed by the student council.   Never mind that they don’t seek recognition from the national fraternity’s headquarters.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?   And you can probably see why it took Rushfield two years to learn that he could no longer “try anything” on the Hampshire College campus, and a full five years to graduate.

Once you get a good start on this truly hilarious read, you’ll find it hard to put down!   Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

Don't Follow Me 3A review of Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost: A Memoir of Hampshire College in the Twilight of the ’80s by Richard Rushfield.

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