Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender)

I love Aimee Bender. I've read all three of her short story collections, which I think are just about the bee's knees. She writes the most lovely magical realism, fabulistic, speculative gems, wonderful writing I could spend the rest of my life reading. It's probably what I would choose if I could only read one thing ever again. Am I totally crazy for Aimee Bender or what!?

Anyway, her second full novel (and the first that I've read), The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake came out a few years ago and I remember seeing it then. The possibilities of what the novel might be really intrigued me--Rose discovers that she can taste feelings in her food, the emotions of whomever prepared the meal. She is terrified: she can taste every ounce of complexity in her mother's internal emotions, can sense her loneliness and dissatisfaction and the affair she is driven to.

It is a frightening situation, to be shouldered with the responsibility of knowing the deepest feelings harbored by anyone who has touched the food you're consuming, and Rose acquires the ability at a young age; she has to spend the rest of her life trying to adjust and close herself off from the secret inside feelings of people around her. It's a story of her growing up with this curse, and it's sad. She turns to processed food, food created mostly by machines--they are empty of feelings, and she can actually think about the tastes instead of the emotions.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a thinking book, and it really wants us to think about our own feelings. Where do we hide them? Who can read them? How much should we share? It's not the sort of book that wants to give us easy answers, or the kind where the characters think about everything and explain it at the end in a chapter or three of really boring conversations/monologues. It's not a novel that wants to do those things, and I didn't want it to do those things, either.

For example, I sense internet frustration that the book doesn't explain why Rose has her talent. For me, at least, that doesn't matter. The basic plot of this story could have gone in a lot of different directions--Rose could have spent a whole book trying to figure out if a fairy cursed her or if she got exposed to radiation in the womb, or she could have used her talent to save the day and stop people from killing themselves or something.

But what does Rose do instead? She tries to kick up a fuss, realizes it will only make her look crazy, and tries to live with it. Like a normal human being. She isn't a superhero, nor a plucky teen heroine stopping the evil alien lord from ending the world. She's a real person. That's one of my favorite things about Aimee Bender's writing: she will invent situations not possible in our real world, but the characters in these microcosms behave as realistically as you or me.

If you are looking for a plot-driven narrative, stay home. This is 100% character-based, and it's strange and it's weird and it's wonderful. Try out a Bender short story first (go for "Ironhead" or "Americca" for a first taste), and if you like it, hey! Congrats. You've just given yourself the gift of a full-length novel that will delight and astonish you in all the ways her shorter works have.

My rating: 5/5
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake on Goodreads
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Sunday, May 11, 2014

We Were Liars (E. Lockhart)

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC!

I was very hesitant about reading We Were Liars. It is perhaps the buzziest YA book out there at the moment, written by a giant in the field, E. Lockhart. I am always intrigued by but wary of such books, because sometimes they really suck (Divergent) and sometimes they blow me away and I'm sad I didn't cave in earlier (Gone Girl). This one in particular was hard to judge because the plot is shrouded in mystery and we are told that we are not supposed to tell anyone about what happens! AHHHH!

But I will tell you some information. Not all, of course. I've never been the sort to spoil a story, so I won't give anything major away. Here's what you need to know to determine if you're interested. The Sinclairs are a wealthy, name-dropped-like-it's-hot kind of family. The grandfather patriarch owns a tiny island populated with huge mansions, and every summer his daughters return to fill them with their children.

The three oldest are Mirren, Johnny, and Cadence. Johnny brings his possible stepbrother, the Indian-American Gat, and the four of them are inseparable. They are the Liars, the golden children of Grandpa Sinclair and the future inheritors of all his wealth and fortune. But it's been two years since Cadence has seen the island--two summers ago, she suffered a terrible accident that she can't remember, one that left her with some serious head trauma. She finally is ready to return and struggles with the island, which feels haunted with unhappy feelings she doesn't understand.

I didn't think I was going to like this book once I started it. I am not a big fan of stories where we know we don't know something and are constantly reminded that we don't, and that's how this book opened: Cady references her accident constantly, but it didn't bother me since she also didn't know what it was. It was more like a mystery novel than a keeping-things-from-the-reader sort of story, so for that I was grateful.

Cady has a narrative style that has, according to other reviews I've read, jarred people. She speaks in short, clipped sentences, descriptions that are sometimes sentence fragments. I'm not sure why other people didn't like it; I'm not saying I loved it, but it worked. It felt like part of her character, and I have to admit that I didn't notice it until other people pointed it out. One of my favorite things about the book is Cady's use of fairy tale as a metaphor: she would give us stories of her life rewritten as fairy tales, groups of threes, rich kings, and daughters who marry princes. Anyone knows the fastest way to my heart is fairy tale stuff.

Of course, a book like this must end in a plot twist. Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you. I was genuinely surprised by the revelation, and it left me feeling really strange--upset and twisted in the stomach and quite sad. Other reviewers said they saw it coming, but I guess that means they're amateur detectives in their spare time? I don't know. I didn't find it predictable at all. It really got me. And I imagine that even if I knew what the secret was, I would still get to the end and feel like my organs had gone through a strainer.

We Were Liars was a lot of fun. It's an elegantly-constructed piece of writing, one that works really hard to draw you in, cast a spell on you, and then punch you in the gut and knock the wind out of you. What a stunner.

My rating: 5/5
We Were Liars on Goodreads
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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)

3(!) years ago, I read Haruki Murakami's gigantic 1Q84. It was my first experience with the Japanese superstar. After I'd finished, I saw that people who had read a great deal of Murakami's work said that it's a terrible place for a novice to start, but I guess the joke's on them because I really, really liked it. I bought a couple of his more popular books and promptly did not read them because that's the kind of person I am.

In the three years it's been, I've agonized over how I ought to proceed. Should I jump into his actual masterwork, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or should I ease myself in with something equally as popular but without any of the weirdness I had enjoyed in 1Q84? I have seen Norwegian Wood described as the Murakami book for people who don't like the weirdness, and I was worried, since I like weird. But I read it anyway. What a bad choice.

The novel is about Toru Watanabe, a college boy in Tokyo. One of his closest friends, Kizuki, commits suicide, and it brings him closer to the girl his friend loved, Naoko. Toru and Naoko bond over Kizuki's absence and start going on long walks every Sunday. One night, it's Naoko's birthday, and Toru goes to her apartment and the two sleep together. Shortly thereafter, she leaves, saying she needs to take some time off from school at a sanatorium.

Enter Midori, a loud, bright student in one of Toru's classes. She is crazy and vulgar and fun, and Toru feels drawn to her even though he feels that he may be in love with Naoko. He spends time with her in between his visits to the sanatorium, where he meets Reiko, a music teacher who is also Naoko's caretaker. And there's Nagasawa, his college friend who sleeps around at every possible moment.

It's a growing up story, but it's not a particularly interesting or fun one. In fact, I'm glad I read it in such close proximity to Black Swan Green, which is everything I want out of a bildungsroman, precisely because I can have that contrast. Where Jason has a lot of insightful, thoughtful moments or revelation and realization, Toru has mopey moments. He spends a lot of the book oscillating between types of loneliness, and not in an intriguing way, either. How ensnaring can a book be if its main character plainly states he is lonely over and over?

Toru is not a really interesting character to follow, and I suspect that he's my underlying issue with the novel. He's quiet, he likes American literature, he is not the most unpopular boy in his dorm. The most exciting part of his personality is that he is in love with a really depressed girl who lives far away, but that so often fades to background noise that it's almost like a separate book. I would even have been on board with a lot of really fun vacillation between Midori and Naoko when he realizes that he loves them both, but Toru's insipidity means that he just says "I love Naoko but I also love Midori. What should I do?" There's no moments of real anguish or torment. It's boring.