Tag Archives: guilt

MacArthur Park

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel by Aimee Bender  (Anchor Reprint Edition; $15.00; 304 pages)

“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 304-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.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake will be released in trade paper form on April 19, 2011.   “Surprisingly, only a couple of critics mentioned that The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is derivative of Like Water for Chocolate.”   Bookmarks Magazine



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Out of My Mind

The Memory Palace: A Memoir by Mira Bartok (Free Press; $25.00; 305 pages)

When she turned seventy-nine she wrote to tell me that although she was now legally blind she had decided to study medicine:  “I am thinking of going to nursing school…  That way, if I ever get sick or lose my sight completely, I’ll know what to do.”   I found a set of her teeth inside an old eyeglass case.

In The Memory Palace, Mira Bartok writes of a world that, sadly, too many of us will come to experience.   This is the world of the adult child whose parent is not only rapidly aging, but entering the throes of dementia or full-fledged insanity.   Whether caused by disease or mental illness, the results are the same – a parent terrified of having bad things happen to him or her brings those very results about through his or her own irrational behavior.   Bartok’s mother, Norma, was terrified of becoming homeless but became so after stabbing her own mother – who suffered from dementia – six times.

When her two daughters were young girls, Norma was diagnosed as having severe schizophrenia, and it cost her both a husband and a home.   Aside from the illness, Norma was a highly talented classical pianist who might have become a household name.   But it was not to be and Mira and her sister grew up in a hellish home with a mother who heard voices in her head, voices that caused her to lose touch with reality and normalcy.

As anyone who has lived through it knows, once a parent begins acting irrationally, their behavior will inevitably continue to deteriorate.   We no longer seem to have systems in place for properly dealing with the problems of the aged with mental issues.   They may be medicated or locked up for various periods of time (from hours to weeks or months), but they simply do not “get better.”

Bartok is to be commended for writing frankly about an adult daughter’s reaction to this, and it is mixed.   One third of her escaped by thinking back to the times when her mother was seemingly normal – a time before this parent’s rapid descent into madness.   One third of her lived in denial, literally trying to escape by hiding from her mother in Europe and elsewhere.   And the last third consisted of the daughter who sometimes had to take harsh actions against her mother – such as attempting to get a court to declare her incompetent – knowing deep down that the situation would only be resolved (made peaceful) with her mother’s death.

In this account it becomes clear to the reader that although Bartok lived a very difficult life due to her mother’s mental instability, she very much loved her mother and has wrestled with feelings of guilt (“I abandoned my mother to the streets.”).   As a young woman, Bartok was involved in an automobile accident that injured her brain and led to memory problems.   This provided her with a measure of insight into her mother’s faded connections with the world.

“…I go to the church and light a candle for my mother.   Not that I believe it will do any good; it’s just to remind myself that she is still lost in the world.”

By writing this blunt and painstakingly honest account of her mother’s troubled life, Bartok has performed an act of penance.   It is an act of humble penance in which she seeks to forgive her mother for literally losing herself.   It is an act of contrition in which she asks the world to forgive both herself and her mother for leading damaged lives.

This brilliantly written work reminds us that self-examination and self-forgiveness precede forgiving others for their real or imagined wrongs.   It’s a harsh world – a dark ocean – out there and we sometimes need assistance in navigating our way through it.   This memoir tells us that lighthouses exist.

Highly recommended.

“If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in the place between sleep and morning.”

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Memory Palace was released on January 11, 2011.

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On the Way Home

Pictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt has built a reputation for insightful probing of motives, desires, and the emotional gears that mesh, don’t mesh, or can be worn to mesh as lives intersect.   Pictures of You (Algonquin Books) demonstrates that human gears, unlike their mechanical counterparts, have the ability to regrow and change shape, like calluses that evolve in response to physical exertion.

The synopsis on the back cover of Pictures of You does not do the book justice.   It sets up the bleak scenario of two thirty-something women, both married, one with a child and the other unable to conceive, whose paths cross in a violent collision on a foggy highway as they both flee unhappy marriages.   Isabelle survives the crash.   April, the mother of nine-year-old Sam, who is hobbled by severe asthma, does not.   Potential readers with an aversion to made-for-TV melodrama might hesitate to wade into an emotional journey so fraught with tragedy.   But that would be a mistake.   The story, alternately told from the viewpoints of Isabelle, Sam, and his grief-stricken father, Charlie, is an examination of assumptions and the actions that spring from them.   It’s not a book that leaves one with a happy glow of contentment.   Rather, it is a wake-up call to talk, ask questions, challenge operating principles and decisions, to dive below the surface and know the people you love, or think you might be able to love.

Sam witnesses the collision from the side of the road, and in the fog, he sees Isabelle, whom he assumes is an angel.   It is that childish impression – like a photograph without a caption – that drives the plot forward, prompting the intersections of Charlie and Isabelle’s lives.   And Sam ultimately provides the closure that eludes Charlie and Isabelle, as well as a note of hopefulness.   Ironically, however, Sam’s viewpoint is the only one of the three that sometimes rings false, his thoughts seeming too adult for a nine-year-old, or too precious.   “He didn’t care that people might say it was impossible.   Lots of things were impossible.   At school, Mr. Moto, his science teacher told them how light could be both a wave and a particle, which was supposed to be impossible.   You could go to a distant planet and somehow come back younger than you were when you left because the laws of time were all screwy.”

But the way Isabelle’s feelings develop – the clash of grief and guilt with the thrill of new love – and Charlie’s struggles to solve the mystery of April’s desertion and to balance his needs and his son’s are beautifully drawn.   Leavitt’s prose is luminous and her characters are layered.   Charlie, a house builder, takes bold steps, and then reverses himself; Isabelle, a photographer, watches, reacts, questions her own impulses.   Pictures of You is compelling, not so much because of the tragic intersection of paths chosen, but because of the characters’ failure to know each other as they envision their lives together.   It’s not the portrait of Charlie, Isabelle and Sam that will haunt you long after you finish the book, but its negative.   Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Pictures of You was released by Algonquin Books in January of 2011.

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Watching the Wheels

On Book Reviewing and Reading

During his unfortunately short lifetime, John Lennon had to deal with a lot of guilt.   Some of it was due to the break-up of his personal and working relationship with Paul McCartney.   But for a time, the public viewed his relationship with Yoko Ono as the likely cause of the Beatles’ dissolution (in retrospect, there were other factors involved).   It finally arrived at the point where John felt compelled to sing, “I don’t believe in Beatles/ I just believe in me/ Yoko and me/ and that’s reality.”

It may seem odd, but a book reviewer is sometimes affected with guilt.   This is especially true after spending hours and days reading a novel, a memoir, a nonfiction account or a survey book and finding it a disappointment.   You might not think so, but most reviewers would love to just write positive reviews.   Except that in the real world, writing exclusively positive reviews just would not reflect reality.

So the books that don’t meet the reviewer’s high expectations must be documented with a dreaded negative review.   And here is where the guilt comes in…  As the reviewer begins to draft a not-so-positive review, he/she begins to wonder if he/she did something wrong or miss the point?   Is it somehow my fault that I didn’t like it?   It’s an odd question but it’s one that I find me asking myself.   Other reviewers that I talk to ask themselves the same question.   Regardless, it’s a thought that must quickly be put aside.

Each of us, after all, is providing only one perspective, one that each review reader (and author) is free to accept or reject.   Talk to four or more people about the Beatles, for example, and you’re likely to hear all of the following:  “John was my favorite.”   “I was always a Paul fan.”   “I always loved George.”   “Ringo was my guy.”   If you were a Paul McCartney fan, you didn’t wonder if it was somehow your fault that John wasn’t your cup of tea.

When I talk to people about music, I get a sense of honest straight forwardness about one’s opinions.   You may know that I love Van Morrison but have no problem in telling me that he is not someone you listen to.   Why should it be different with literature, with books, with popular fiction?   I think it’s because many of us grew up seeing academic standards applied to literature that were not applied to modern music.   There was a sense that opinions about books were more formal, more standardized; therefore, there should be a consensus as to whether a particular book was “good” or “bad.”

Of course, all that has changed with the advent of the internet and with the more traditional style reviews (especially those printed on paper) moving into the background.   We’re entering the new world where, it might be said, we’re all “free to be you and me.”   So your opinion about a book is just as good, as valuable, as mine and vice-versa.   We’ve entered a zone where everything in life is, as one New York City newspaper observed, both large and small all at once.

So when, for a moment, the feeling of guilt crops up because you love something that other people don’t – or fail to admire a book that others may – it’s time to move past that moment and accept that you simply feel what you feel.   You think what you think and this is fine.   You get to judge what you want and need to judge, and don’t ever believe those who tell you that you “shouldn’t judge things.”   Everyone judges everything in life almost every minute of the day, but only some admit to it.   Book reviewers, by necessity and by role, must admit to it.

And John Lennon offered us some valuable advice – in the song “Watching the Wheels” – as to what to do once we’ve boarded the merry-go-round of guilt…  Get off of it.   “I just had to let it go.”   We just need to let it go.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by author-musician Ken Sharp was published by MTV Books.

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Freedom Rules

Unbillable Hours: A True Story by Ian Graham (Kaplan)

“Mario’s case was my personal salvation…”

This is a nonfiction story of a person finding freedom.   Initially, it appears to be the story of one Mario Rocha, convicted of a murder in the Los Angeles area and sentenced to life in prison.   But it is actually the story of Ian Graham, a lawyer who worked for five years in the white shoe law firm of Latham Watkins.   Graham was one of a class of 47 first-year associates hired by the L.A. firm.   Only three of them remained working there after five years.

Graham’s telling of the overwrought work environment at Latham Watkins brings John Grisham’s The Associate to real life.   Experienced and new attorneys find themselves pulling all-nighters, sometimes wearing the same clothes for three days.   Much of the work involves looking through truckloads of documents, and responding to interrogatories in major corporate litigation cases.   Graham comes to see that he is “simply unsuited” to working in this environment, where one’s professional life is dedicated to “resolving the problems of, or enriching, corporations.”

To Graham’s good fortune, Latham is committed to pro bono work.   “Pro bono public – for the public good – is a tradition of the legal profession focused on the idea that every lawyer should devote at least a portion of his or her time to representing indigent clients or worthy causes for free.”   The young attorney Graham volunteers to work with two senior, experienced attorneys on the case of The People vs. Mario Rocha.

At 16, Rocha attended a night-time party that was crashed by at least two gang members.   A young man who was celebrating his college admission was killed that night.   This happened at a time when there was pressure from all levels (federal, state and local) for the City of L.A. to do something about its gang problems.   The two shooters are identified pretty quickly, but Rocha is also arrested after being identified in a photo lineup by attendees of the party.

There are multiple issues with the evidence against Rocha, but he is nevertheless arrested and charged with homicide.   He is tried with the two known gang members, the presumption being (although Graham argues that it was never proven at the trial) that he was also a gang member.   Rocha’s family members are confident that he’ll be acquitted, but they hire an attorney with minimal experience who devotes just eight hours of preparation to Mario’s defense.   As a result, Rocha is convicted by a jury and sentenced to life behind bars.

This is the background to the events covered in Unbillable Hours.   Graham finds himself driving to Calipatria State Prison to meet with Rocha and, surprisingly, discovers that he’s developed a “goddamned conscience.”   In other words, he’s found a cause that offers rewards greater than the mega bucks he’s getting at Latham (where the garage houses so many new Mercedes and BMW automobiles that it is said to look like a German automobile dealership).   But overturning a criminal conviction in California is virtually impossible, so Graham’s going to have to move Heaven and Earth to do so.   They also may need a miracle, which comes in the form of a Catholic nun’s efforts.

It’s no surprise that Mario Rocha is eventually freed, and this telling of how that is accomplished is fascinating.   Yet, again, Unbillable Hours is more about Graham than it is about Rocha.   When Graham initially visits Rocha at Calipatria he begins to ponder what a “loss of freedom” means.   He also comes to see that Rocha is a very intelligent young man who was not privileged to get the same breaks in life as Graham, the son of a lawyer.

This reviewer had just two concerns with this nonfiction account.   Although most of the story is told in layman’s terms, there are times when the language will be difficult for a typical reader to follow:  “It is clear no witness exists who could have proven Petitioner’s innocence as he claimed.   The testimony failed to raise credible evidence of Petitioner’s innocence by a preponderance of the evidence.”   Yes, this is language from a court document, an order, but it would have been well to translate it into simpler terms.

Graham also fails to ascribe the best of motives to the actions of prosecutors and others in this account.   Prosecutors must act on the information gathered and provided to them by law enforcement and/or their own investigators.   In general, they are very talented and skilled individuals who do not work to get rich.   (Graham, by his own admission, did not know how to draft motions when he became involved in the Rocha case.)   It may have been beneficial to have included an addendum giving the assigned prosecutors a chance to express their views and perspectives on this case.

Mario Rocha today is an undergraduate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.   Ian Graham is experiencing a different kind of freedom, speaking at law schools and to public defenders.   He no longer makes a six-figure salary, but he is unshackled enough to “see a world and a life beyond the confines” of a large corporate law firm.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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