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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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What Is Life

The Stormchasers: A Novel by Jenna Blum (Plume; $15.00; 369 pages)

“…while they are crossing the grass their movement startles a flock of birds in the vacant lot next to the motel, and she stops to watch them rise as one and circle the sky.   It seems an omen of something.   Karena just doesn’t know what.”

With The Stormchasers, Jenna Blum has delivered a stunning and magical story about the price of family.   Karena Jorge is a twin whose brother Charles suffers from bipolar disorder.   The condition causes Charles to act out in ways, both verbal and physical, that are harmful to both himself and those around him.   It seems that medications don’t work to alleviate his symptoms, they simply replace his anxieties with new physical maladies.   The only thing that appears to help the erratic, high-IQ Charles calm down is to move around the center of the U.S. chasing active storms.

“Charles is, after all, a genius…  But trying to make sense of what he’s saying now is like hearing a piece of music with one wrong note played over and over…”

We join the Jorges in 1988, as Karena is about to depart for college and experience a respite from being her brother’s keeper.   But then Charles disappears and Karena is aware that at some point she will need to do her best to find him.   It takes her 20 years, 1 month and 6 days to do so, and only when she has assumed the identity of a reporter writing a story on stormchasers.   This is not, however, the point at which the story ends, it is, rather, where it actually begins…

The Charles of 2008 is a very troubled character – in fact, he’s mentally disturbed, if not fully insane.   Karena believes, to her dismay, that she loves her brother more than she will ever love anyone who will enter her life.   This means that she will either destroy her own life as his caretaker, or let Charles – who is jealous of anyone receiving Karena’s attentions – do it for her.   There seems to be no way out until, incredibly, the recklessness of the Jorges places them in trouble with the law.   It’s then that both Karena and Charles must locate their moral centers and the path to a better life.

“…sometimes when you throw yourself upon the world, it will hold you up.”

Jenna Blum does a masterful job of instructing the reader on the beauty of storms created by nature:  “She never would have known about this wild and violent beauty, (had she) not experienced it firsthand.   She stands in the road, watching, for a long, long time.”   By analogy, she teaches us that the storms in our lives must sometimes be approached directly – literally finding the eye of the storm – rather than avoided.   For, once an active storm breaks, we’re gifted with a new ability to appreciate the quiet serenity of life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.


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In the White Room

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier (St. Martin’s Griffin; $14.99; 320 pages)

“…my house, my home, had become something deep and comforting to me, far beyond what I’d ever expected to find or feel in…  a world outside of ideas, of letters or literature.”

“…most men tend to live one-dimensional lives…”

Have you ever watched one of those home improvement shows where you patiently wait throughout the entire show for the big reveal at the end – and then the end is a disappointment?   That’s the way I felt about reading this book, which I wanted to like more than I did.   There was just less here than I expected to find.

This is the story of a romance between an academically minded homeowner, Joy Harkness, and a handyman-carpenter by the name of Ted Hennessey.   Joy leaves the politics of Columbia University to teach in an innovative new program at Amherst College in Massachusetts.   She has plenty of money so she buys her first real home, which is a run-down Victorian.   Naturally, it needs to be run-down in order for Teddy to enter the picture.

It was the character of Teddy Hennessey that just did not add up for me and made the read slower than it should have been.   When we first encounter Teddy, he’s the handyman who listens to The Who cassettes all day on his boom box.   That’s when he’s not reciting the poetry of Yeats, from memory no less.   Now, really, what are the chances of finding a handyman like that?   Well, virtually none in the real world.   Highly improbable to say the least.

“I’ll always be her child!” he snarled.

Oh, but then we think that maybe Teddy’s a closet intellectual who is just dying for the chance to go to college, something that Joy can help him with, right?   No, it turns out that our Teddy is afraid of going to school because then he’d have to abandon his sainted mother who has him wrapped around her finger like a 9-year-old.   So we’re left with a man-child who is simply not likeable…  Why the once-married, yet seemingly independent, Joy is attracted to this wuss is a sheer mystery.

Since the romance between Teddy and Joy (note the juvenile names) is doomed, Joy develops an attraction to her abode.   This is merely a comforting, if hardly an earth shattering, premise on which to build a novel.

“I turned and noticed, as I climbed the steps to the porch, that my house looked warm and inviting.   The rooms were lit, glowing from within; the colors they reflected were soft and inviting.   There was life in this house, and I was part of it.”

There was also a lot of crying in this book.   “Tears ran down my face and puddle around my nose before soaking the pillow.   I didn’t know why I was crying…”   “I’ve cried more this year than in the past twenty combined.”   “(I) cried until I didn’t think there could possibly be any liquid left in my body.”   I’m not sure why the otherwise solid – and growingly feminist – protagonist needs to experience such intense crying jags, another confusing factor.

One more confusing thing relates to a major scene in the book.   Joy’s married-but-separated friend Donna is savagely attacked by her former husband.   Donna’s ex uses a golf club to beat her nearly to death; pieces of her scalp are found on the club by the police.   Donna apparently has several broken bones in her face and is in critical condition.   She’s rushed to the hospital for life-saving surgery and facial reconstruction.   A number of characters in this story act commendably, taking care of Donna’s children during the time that she’s away.   Eventually, Donna returns home on Valentine’s Day and the very thing the reader wants to know goes hauntingly unanswered – what does her face look like?   (It’s as if the character departs as a human but returns as a ghost.)

On the plus side, there’s some nice humor.   “I went into the dressing room and emerged from the curtain in outfit after outfit, like a puppet in a Punch and Judy show.”   But as for the ending of this story, it simply appeared to run out of steam rather than concluding in a definitive and logical way.

Some might be attracted to this tale because of its promise of a type of late-in-life feminism, or the notion that someone can, in a sense, partner with one’s surroundings.   Both are promising and positive notions but they did not eliminate a sense of hollowness.

“I had no story, or, at least, none that I could see.   But my vantage point was, perhaps, too close to the shore to see that I had, at last, begun to swim toward my own life.”

This novel may present, for the right reader, lessons that will assist in commencing a journey of self-examination and discovery…  I was not that reader.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher. The Season of Second Chances was released in trade paperback form on March 29, 2011.

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Building a Mystery

The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw (Anchor; $15.00; 320 pages)

“I will never get enough of you.   I will never have enough.   I will never have enough.”

Author Holly LeCraw has produced something quite distinctive in this, her debut, a male romance novel.   It’s a romance novel, told from a male’s perspective (and from the perspective of the woman he pursues), about a young man who wants something he cannot have – his late father’s mistress.

Jed McClatchy leaves his big city job to join his harried married sister Callie in Cape Cod.   There he happens to encounter one Marcella di Pavarese Atkinson, who seven years earlier had an affair with Jed’s dad.   As a teenager, Jed was attracted to Marcella from the moment he spotted her in a sexy swim suit at an adult pool party.   Now he finds the very same swim suit stored in the attic of his late parents’ home.

Jed is attracted to Marcella physically, while emotionally and psychologically he’s tied to her in a desperate search for answers…  It seems that after Jed’s father, Cecil, promised Marcella that he would leave his wife Betsy for her, Betsy was found brutally murdered.   And then soon after Cecil died under mysterious circumstances.   Was Marcella involved in these events?   If not, what exactly did she know about this cataclysmic time?

“He was furious, again, that he could not stop wanting her.”

Subconsciously, Jed must wonder (as does the reader) whether he wants Marcella because she’s the one thing his very important father was never allowed to possess; or perhaps it is because she was the dangerous woman who was involved in eliminating her only competition, Jed’s straight-laced mother.   At any rate, this is a very powerful story of obsession – a young man’s obsession with love, lust and the need to solve a family mystery.

“Marcella was trying hard not to tell him that she felt the cooling late-summer days ticking by like she was a condemned woman.   Every night she could physically feel that the sun was setting earlier, the world darkening in response to their looming separateness.   She was having trouble sleeping.   Her life was broken and she did not know how to fix it.”

LeCraw has a fine, calm and sophisticated style that becomes more engaging the farther one is into the telling.   If there’s a weakness here, it’s that making one’s way through the slow opening pages takes a bit of persistence.   (I put the book down after a few dozen pages, but I came to feel well-rewarded once I resumed the read.)   LeCraw’s strength is that the sexual scenes strike just the right balance – they do not simply drop down from the sky, nor are they included for mere titillation.

It’s a bit disorienting to find a debut novel that is truly one of a kind (sui generis) in tone and nature, but this is precisely what LeCraw has delivered here.   Let’s hope for more to come.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Swimming Pool will be released in a trade paperback version on April 19, 2011.   “A fearless novel full of fresh insights and casually elegant writing…”   Atlanta Magazine


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Get Together

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Berkley Trade; $15.00; 544 pages)

Wasn’t that the point of the book?   For women to realize, We are just two people.   Not that much separates us.   Not nearly as much as I’d thought.

Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help, is a wonderful story truly worthy of its attention and praise.   Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s at the crux of integration, Stockett portrays the help’s perspective of life and hardships in the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is a young, educated woman whose only dream is to become a writer.   Encouraged to write about something that “disturbs her” Skeeter risks everything she has to listen to the stories of the black women who care for the homes and children of her wealthy friends and family.   She elicits Abilleen and her best friend Minny, both of whom have dedicated their lives to caring for the white families in their town, to put their lives in jeopardy in order to share their stories. 

They say it’s like true love, good help.   You only get one in a lifetime.

Skeeter, a budding activist fighting for equity in a town vehemently supporting segregation while Martin Luther King, Jr. leads the nation in the Civil Rights Movement, finds grace and purpose in her own life as she shares the stories of the help in her small town.

All my life I’d been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl.   But with Constantine’s thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe.

The Help invites you to listen to their stories and determine how far you would be willing to go in order to gain the truth and to ultimately do the right thing.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   The Help will be released in trade paperback form on April 5, 2011.

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Coming Up Next…

A look at a contemporary classic, The Help: A Novel by Kathryn Stockett, soon to be released in trade paperback form.

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Simple Twist of Fate

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Broadway; $16.00; 400 pages)

henreitta lacks

This begins as an excellent biography of a woman who might have remained unknown but for a miracle of medicine.   “At the age of twenty-one, Henrietta stared through the train window at rolling hills and wide-open bodies of water for the first time, heading toward a new life.”   Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cervical cancer but her cells are still alive.   To be exact, only her cancer cells continue to live but they may live for up to 100 years if frozen.   They are the so-called HeLa cells that are used by researchers throughout the world to advance the knowledge of how to fight and halt disease.

Author Rebecca Skloot has taken on the challenge of melding a family’s story with a tale of medicine and law.   The personal story is engaging and quite well done.   The reader will come to feel that he or she not only becomes acquainted with Henrietta Lacks, but also her late daughter Deborah, and her other children and grandchildren.   And, as Skloot gracefully notes, they are quite beautiful grandchildren.

This reader felt the telling was less effective when addressing the medical and legal issues.   That’s because the case is made that Henrietta’s cells were, in effect, stolen from her by Johns Hopkins Hospital.   Yet once you’ve read through two-thirds of the book, you learn that Hopkins explicitly met the medical research standards (and the legal requirements) of the day.   Indeed, it was a different time.   A relation of this reviewer gave consent for a cancer biopsy in 1950 in a northern California hospital.   Only later did the relative learn that her stomach cells were only removed in California; the cell slides were mailed to Johns Hopkins for the medical research and analysis.

There’s also an apparent contradiction in the events.   We’re told repeatedly that Henrietta did not consent to having her cells used for medical research.   Yet, her husband did authorize an autopsy and there’s also a reference to a death-bed conversation during which Henrietta was said to have told a physician that she was pleased that others might benefit from an examination of her cancerous cell tissues.   But even if this conversation never happened, the law at the time was what it was.

The author tells  us that the rights of research subjects were largely unprotected until 1966.   Yes, and this means that a lot of time is spent reviewing and debating the medical morality of an earlier time.   It is a moot point.

Henrietta’s daughter Deborah is the appealing figure in this account.   She is the family member who argued – passionately and perhaps appropriately – that one cannot hold yesterday’s medical professionals to today’s ethical and moral standards.   Deborah, in fact, jumps off the pages of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as the person who is brought back to life in the telling.

The descendents of Henrietta Lacks have never benefited from the use of her cells, leaving aside the issue of whether they were properly appropriated.   They have not received any money, and although HeLa cells are sold for medical research, the family does not have health care.   This is truly a shame, an injustice, and it is hoped that Skloot’s account will – in highlighting this issue – change things.

Henrietta Lacks deserves to be remembered, as does Deborah Lacks.   Rebecca Skloot has provided the tombstone that Henrietta’s family could never afford.   This true account is at its best when paying tribute to a woman whose life, in death, has benefited countless individuals worldwide.

It is encouraging to hope and think (and perhaps pray) that this account will result in a better life for the children, beautiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Henrietta and Deborah Lacks.   That would be the greatest tribute of all.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   

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