Monthly Archives: August 2012

Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

I remember hearing about this book when it was published in 2010, and I formed some preconceptions about what it was like: my impression was of a vaguely chick-litty coming of age story having to do with emotions and food, something along the lines of Like Water for Chocolate. So imagine my surprise when I read it for a book club this month and discovered it was absolutely nothing like that. Okay, it is a coming of age story and it is, in part, about emotions and food. It also has a science fiction twist that I did not see coming and, frankly, still can’t quite process.

The author does an astonishing job of conjuring the perspectives and emotions of childhood. When nearly nine-year-old Rose tastes her mother’s lemon cake and experiences the restless, empty craving of an unhappily married woman, it fills her with overwhelming despair. As she grows, she seeks refuge in the blank factory taste of processed junk food, her best friend’s spare turkey sandwiches and their emanations of maternal love, the pizza saturated with a particular lunch lady’s straightforward sadness.

Meanwhile, Rose’s father tackles life each day as a box to be checked, with as little discussion as possible. His fixation with achieving a precisely normal life is thwarted daily by his flighty, hyperemotional wife and his strange, antisocial son. Rose will eventually manage a conversation with her father that sheds light on the forces at work in her family; even then, so much remains unexplained, unexplored.

That lack of resolution is both the main frustration of the book, and the reason I can’t get it out of my head. And then, of course, there’s the question of the brother and where he went. To say more would be to unleash an unforgivable spoiler, but this was without a doubt the most startling development in the book and the most contentious issue in our book club discussion.

What did it mean? I’m wondering now if perhaps the whole story can be read as a metaphor for people with heightened sensitivities to the pain of the world and the emotions of others, and the strategies they use to cope. One might find a strength or skill in what first seemed like a burden, or build up a defensive layer thick enough to ward off the emotions that otherwise might be too strong to bear. Or one might decide to leave this world behind.

Genre: Literary fiction with a mind-bending twist.

Read it if: You enjoy filling in the blanks and you don’t mind reading a book that will make you hungry.

Skip it if: You like your loose ends tied up nice and neat.

Movie-worthy: It would take a far greater imagination than mine to conjure up a decent move version of this book.

Review: Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Portia Nathan is in need of some shaking up. An admissions officer at Princeton, Portia appears to have everything in her life under control. Then a visit to an unorthodox high school in New Hampshire results in a chance encounter with someone who remembers her from her days as a Dartmouth undergrad, and it rapidly becomes clear that Portia has never recovered from something that happened while she was in college.

“Here’s the thing,” a friend tells her early in the book, “You are thirty-eight years old. That’s not too late. But if you’re going to make some changes, make them soon.” She was referring to Portia’s love life, but in truth this could be the pivotal statement of the book. Is it too late for Portia to change? Did she make all the important choices long, long ago? Her entire future depends on the answer to that question.

It should be noted that a crucial plot point in this book hinges on a coincidence; a really, really big coincidence. It’s also one the reader may see coming from quite a distance. Fortunately, Portia is such a sympathetic character (and John Halsey such an adorable one) that it’s easy to keep on suspending that disbelief. Slightly more distracting are Portia’s frequent rants about the opposing pressures of life as an admissions officer at an extremely selective university. They do not always advance the plot, but ultimately her job is a crucial key to understanding who she is. (And it is fascinating to get a peek at what factors come into play when a kid is granted admission to a place like Princeton.)

Finally, I have an admission of my own: this book, a lovely hardcover, has been sitting on my bookshelf unread for the past two years. I’d heard only good things about it, and meant to read it, but it took hearing news of a movie version starring two of my favorite famous people, Paul Rudd and Tina Fey, to prompt me to finally pick it up. If they capture even a fraction of the humor and compassion in this book, it should be a great movie.

Genre: Realistic literary fiction

Read it if: You love intelligent, deftly written novels that fully immerse you in someone else’s life.

Skip it if: You don’t believe in coincidence or you have a deep-seated aversion to the Ivy League.

Movie-worthy: Apparently! I can’t wait to see it

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Review: The Pack by Jason Starr

There are so many werewolves out there these days. Sweet were-teen Sam in Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver; Sookie Stackhouse’s sexy friend Alcide; the self-aware, unnervingly sympathetic killer Jake Marlowe in Glen Duncan’s visceral The Last Werewolf. Yet Jason Starr has somehow managed to put a fresh spin on an old story, starting with the werewolves themselves: a pack of stay-at-home dads in New York.

After losing his job as an ad exec, Simon Burns has no choice but to fire the nanny and care for his three-year-old son Jeremy while his wife goes off to work each morning. It’s not an easy transition. Simon attempts to take his semi-potty-trained son on an outing and learns the hard way how important it is to have a spare change of clothes. (For non-parents, this may be the most horrifying scene in the book.)

When Simon stumbles upon a trio of friendly, attractive and welcoming dads in the park, each with a small son of his own, he can’t believe his good luck. After a male bonding session, Simon wakes up naked in the woods. Thus begins Simon’s evolution from sensitive, semi-vegetarian, stressed-out, libido-less modern man to athletic alpha male with boundless appetites for meat and sex. But is that who Simon wants to be?

The author manages to keep the story twisting in unexpected directions right up to the very end, and his matter-of-fact prose style grounds the supernatural events in a believable way. Particularly ingenious was an unusual (and gruesome) method of killing a werewolf (hint: it’s the same way that Kate Atkinson’s detective Jackson Brodie once dispatched an attacking dog.)

My only quibble: the depiction of a female werewolf. Starr seemed to imply that the very traits that made the male werewolves so attractive–assertiveness, confidence, physical prowess–make a woman repellent. It’s possible I’m overthinking this, but I can’t help comparing this emotionally unstable character to the amazing Tallula in Talulla Rising. I’ll reserve judgment on this question until after I’ve read the sequel, The Craving, which came out in June.

Genre: Supernatural daddy-lit thriller (i.e., sui generis)

Read it if: You enjoy fast-paced, tension-filled thrillers with a supernatural twist.

Skip it if:  You’re squeamish, or more of a cat person.

Movie-worthy: Absolutely. In fact, I feel like I’ve already seen it. My casting suggestion: all the guys from Magic Mike.

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Review: The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

At the start of this brilliantly crafted novel, Percival Chen, the headmaster of Percival Chen English Academy, leads a life of prosperity and frequent self-indulgence in Cholon, a Chinese community near Saigon. There’s a war on, but Percival believes his money and influence provide sufficient protection, no matter who ultimately wins. The next several years will show him exactly how wrong he is.

Percival has more than his share of flaws, pride and greed chief among them. He gambles, drinks too much, and seeks “introductions” to the girls provided by the notorious Mrs. Ling. Yet he’s not really a bad person, just an all too human one, and the price for his willful blindness to the forces at work around him is higher than anyone should have to pay.

The author skillfully ratchets up the tension as Percival places bets that risk everything he cares about. Percival doesn’t know how the war will end, how his idealized homeland in China will suffer under the Cultural Revolution. The reader does, and it’s heartbreaking to witness the choices he makes in his ignorance. An absolutely unforgettable read.

Genre:  Literary historical fiction

Read it if: you want to be immersed in another time and place, in a story that will stay in your thoughts for days after you’ve turned the last page.

Skip it if: you’re squeamish about violence. The book includes some scenes of truly horrifying brutality, including violence against children. This is not the main focus of the story, but it was searing to read.

Movie-worthy: Unquestionably. But I would never go see it.

Review: A Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

In the movie It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey only discovers the crucial impact he’s had in the lives of virtually everyone in his community when despair drives him to contemplate suicide. In A Casual Vacancy, Barry Fairbrother has played a similarly crucial role for the citizens of Pagford–and it is his loss that reverberates through the small community after his sudden death.

Rowling slowly reveals the circles of Barry’s friends and acquaintances, the rippling effects of his compassion and his ability to communicate and inspire. He is on the Parish council (the “casual vacancy” of the title describes the position made available by his passing); he coaches the girls’ crew team at the local high school; he comes from the Fields, the local council housing (i.e., the projects), yet he has ascended to a leadership position within the very heart of old Pagford.

Not that Barry was a saint; his wife makes clear that his activism and interest in others came at a cost. On their anniversary, the day of his death, he spent those last precious hours working on an editorial for the local newspaper advocating for retention of the Fields within the boundaries and responsibility of Pagford. She suggests that his time would have been better spent devoted to his family, and to her.

Others are nearly giddy with joy at Barry’s death. The jovially sinister Howard Mollison and his smugly superior wife Shirley consider themselves the rightful rulers of their small town and view Barry Fairbrother as a hopelessly naive interloper. They hope to capitalize on his death to crown their son Miles to the vacant position on the Parish council, ensuring they will succeed in ridding the town of all responsibility for the Fields and its needy inhabitants.

While the adults plot and scheme for control over Pagford’s future, the teenagers of Pagford are wrestling with dire issues of their own. Andrew Price must cope with his father’s abusive rages, while pining for Gaia, who’s newly and unwillingly arrived from London. Sukhvinder Jawanda’s self-esteem has nearly vanished in a flood of constant bullying from her peers and hypercritical pressure from her mother Parminder, a doctor and one of Barry’s allies on the council. Stuart “Fats” Wall searches for what he calls authenticity, but looks a great deal like cruelty and apathy. And finally, Krystal Weedon, resident of the Fields and daughter of a drug addict, struggles to keep her little brother Robbie clothed and fed. She is the girl both sides point to when arguing their cases on the council, a hopeless waste of resources or an example of the potential going to waste in the Fields.

At its heart, A Casual Vacancy shows the power of one individual’s actions or inactions. Barry Fairbrother chose action, and his life made a difference in the lives of everyone around him. As the story draws toward its tragic conclusion, others are forced to wonder if their choices could have averted catastrophe. The kernel of hope lies in the fact that some will come to realize their lives can have a positive effect. Barry Fairbrother was a rare and gifted man, but it was his choices that made him who he was. Just like Harry Potter.

Sorry, couldn’t help adding that last bit. Ultimately, though, the theme of this adult book is not unlike the struggles between good and evil in the world of Hogwarts. People are complex, flawed and selfish, weak and proud. Yet our choices make us who we are; we can choose to close our eyes, or we can choose to take action. It appears that J.K. Rowling has made that choice as well: her Lumos foundation works to help disadvantaged children.

Genre: Gritty small-town literary fiction

Read it if: You thought Middlemarch was a little too upbeat

Skip it if: You’re only reading it because you love Harry Potter so much

Movie-worthy: Mmm. Maybe. Perhaps better as a mini-series


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