Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender: A Review

Aimee Bender's second novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake starts off with an unusual premise. Nine year old Rose Edelstein eats her mother's homemade lemon cake, a birthday treat, and learns she has the gift of tasting her mother's emotions in her food. What might seem like a gift is in fact a curse since her mother suffers from the usual suburban ennui. The result for Rose is that eating turns to torture as she processes emotions she is far too young to fully comprehend. Unfortunately for the novel, what could have been an interesting premise only delves into the usual literary staples of how miserable it is to be middle class.

There is a lot to like about Bender's novel. Her narrator is engaging and mature (she ages from nine to her early twenties through the course of the novel), and is able to discern the complexity of human emotions and behavior through the food she eats. Her reactions to the food her mother prepares are unpleasant to downright violent, and yet we are able to see her mother's life only through Rose's reactions to the food. Rose is certainly aware of the complexities of her parents' marriage, her father's unwillingness to engage with his family, or how her mother favors older brother Joseph. When her mother begins an affair, Rose welcomes the reprieve since the food she now prepares is filled with more pleasant emotions. Rose responds to this outcome with levelheaded maturity, more relieved that her mother is at least feeling loved. However one would think that Rose, in experiencing what her mother feels, might question why she or her father were not enough to make her mother happy. Nor does Rose feel any jealousy regarding her mother's favoritism toward Joseph. These are interesting dilemmas that the Bender never addresses and, aside from the novel's engaging style, leaves it feeling rather hollow.

The novel's premise also doesn't allow for Rose to act decisively independent of what any person would normally do. Her coping mechanism is to eat a lot of processed foods since they are devoid of any human and emotional interaction, an interesting idea that could have used further exploration. Otherwise Rose's role is to react to the world around her. This becomes all the more so when, by the middle of the novel, Bender abandons Rose's predicament in favor of the far more intriguing story about Joseph. Misunderstood and unappreciated (aside from his mother), Joseph is a young scientific genius who prefers to be left alone rather than interact with other people. As Rose soon learns, he likewise has an unusual talent. This talent, along with Rose's, seems to run in the family, as we later learn about their father. Rose reacts primarily to her brother's troubles, is to first to notice his talent, and yet all she can do is react. Joseph's skill acts as a metaphor of sorts for his inability to cope and survive in the real world, much the way a drug addict would, and his family's reaction to his slow disintegration is generally with the same level of confusion and helplessness. Joseph's story is the most suspenseful and it gives The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake an intriguing pulse in a way that Rose's dilemma simply does not.

The novel is slender and Bender's style is both spare and observant. And the fabulist world that she creates within the realistic settings of Los Angeles is intriguing enough to be a page turner (I finished the book in two days). Yet she creates so many threads within the story (Rose, Joseph, her mother's infidelity, her father's lack of intimacy) that they rarely connect in any meaningful way. In the end I was left wondering what was the whole point. Despite its fabulist trappings, the novel treads territory that is already too familiar in most literary fiction; unfortunately too familiar to yield any new truths (to be honest, Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate uses magic realism and the culinary arts to deliver a tale that is far more passionate and larger-than-life). I did enjoy reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, but I wished Aimee Bender could have pushed the envelope and explored more dangerous territory.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Poetry and Comics Explored in Gary Jackson's 2010 poetry collection Missing You, Metropolis

The old comics were never wrong.                             
Right always defended
by the hero---polished like Adonis.
In one moment Thor is paused
in flight toward his foe,
the motion lines steadying
his resolve as he hurtles
ever closer. The next moment
Mnolnir, his mystical hammer, slams
against the Black Knight’s helmet
with a
thwack in red letters---
emulating pain, as Thor announces
every move in white bubbles.

The Secret Art of Reading Comic Books

Comic books and poetry. On the surface, they seem like strange bedfellows. But then again, superheroes have become our modern mythological heroes, with Superman, Iron Man, the X-Men, and the Dark Knight taking their place among the pantheon of Greek gods and mythological figures like Zeus, Adonis, and Hercules. Seen in this way, Gary Jackson’s 2010 collection of poems, Missing You, Metropolis, makes poetic sense. Winner of the 2009 Cave Canem poetry prize, Jackson brings a fresh eye to pop culture and its hold on our collective imagination, as well as a haunting vision of childhood hopes of right and wrong undermined by adulthood, broken dreams, and compromises.

Selected and introduced by poet Yusuf Komunyakaa, Missing You, Metropolis explores the worlds between the pages of comic books and the streets of Jackson's youth in Kansas and the uncertain roads to adulthood in Manhattan. The childhood death of the author's sister and the suicide of his friend, Stuart, form the heartbeat of the collection, compromising the poet's passion for comics and their promise of a world that is easily defined and rendered between colored panels. Matters of life and death, sex, race, friendship, and marriage sit side by side with poems about Superman, Lois Lane, and The Incredible Hulk stripped of their panelistic adventures and placed within the real world, where actions have consequences and death cannot be forestalled. In “Iron Man’s Intervention, Starring the Avengers”:

As if I can’t have a drink
or two in the morning
before risking my life
for people who don’t
know my name

or “The Family Solid,” in which Stuart is initiated into a gang:

We were barely out
of middle school
when Stuart showed me the scar---
an S branded in his brown arm. 

Solid, Stuart said, fresh
from his initiation.
They held him down
in a basement, seared his skin

Jackson draws a connection between both worlds until the lines that separate fact from fiction are obliterated. Jackson’s voice meshes an informal, but poetic vision with sharp lines and stanzas that almost resemble the panels in a comic, carefully chosen language standing in for color, movement, and those ever present thought bubbles. In Jackson’s collection, superheroes, like their real life counterparts, are neither heroic nor super, but very human in their pursuits of love and respect. Gone are the naive hopes that these mythological figures will rescue young boys from a world made more treacherous by real-life villains, but offer a hard-earned knowledge that the world does not always offer simple solutions or can be neatly categorized in matters of good and evil. But as the poet ends the Missing You, Metropolis "...we indulge in the power/to inhabit a world a page removed from our own," ("Reading Comic Books in the Rain"), Jackson reveals that even in adulthood comic books and superheroes still wield a tremendous hold on the collective imagination. 


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Samuel L. Jackson Narrates Popular Children's Book "Go the F--k to Sleep"

Adam Mansbach's children's book Go the F--k to Sleep became wildly successful when it was published earlier this year, hitting the New York Times Bestsellers List. Now actor Sam Jackson has recorded an audio recording of the book, which has offered for free. Film director Werner Herzog also gets in on the act by recording a version of the children's picture book.

Go the F--k to Sleep is funny on its own, but Jackson's line readings give it an extra wicked kick! Anybody who's ever had the misfortune of trying to put the little ones to sleep will especially relate. Mansbach wrote the book based on his own experience's, so the lullaby rhymes laced with acid ring true. With lines like these: "The flowers doze low in the meadows/And high on the mountains so steep/My life is a failure, I'm a shitty ass parent/Stop fucking with me, please, and go to sleep" it's easy to see that Go the F--k to Sleep goes into deep, dark territory about the complex relationships between parent and child.

Less a children's book for the kid's, Go the F--k to Sleep is a lullaby for all those sleepless parents out there, not to mention a warning to those Moms- and Dads-to-be. 


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Wendy and Lucy: DVD Review

There are few films today that explore the parameters of poverty and capitalism that have the same power as older films such as Umberto D, Nothing But A Man, and The Killer of Sheep. When film and television do explore such issues, it is often trapped within the confines of sociological case studies, designed more to explain to a mostly middle-class audience about the social pathologies and criminal behavior of the poor. The films mentioned above avoid such trappings, and instead present its characters as fully rendered human beings, capable of kindness as well as cruelty, whose perceptions and actions are nonetheless shaped by the socioeconomic realities of their lives.

Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 feature Wendy and Lucy follows more in the tradition of these earlier films, a rare breed that chooses to treat those who live within the margins of society with the respect they rarely get in popular culture. The plot of Wendy and Lucy is fairly simple. Wendy and her dog Lucy arrive in Portland, Oregon on their way to Alaska, where Wendy hopes to find lucrative work in the fishing canneries. While there, she faces a series of mishaps that force her to delay her trip and tax her meager financial resources. First her car breaks down. Realizing she will have to spend what little money she has to get it fixed, she shoplifts dog food at a nearby store, gets caught, and arrested. She spends more money to pay the fee to avoid a trial two weeks later. After she’s released from jail, she returns to the store where she had Lucy tied up  outside only to find that the dog is gone. Wendy spends the rest of the film searching for her dog and trying to get her car fixed. But along the way, she finds herself in more precarious situations that grate on her both emotionally and financially.

The quiet power and strength in this film, which is only 80 minutes long, lies in its social commentary about our society and the way it treats the poor and indigent. Reichardt doesn’t betray her story with didacticism, but rather carefully and masterfully reveals her vision through story and character. Every step of the way, the film reveals how society and relationships are shaped by the exchange of money. After Wendy sleeps in her car for the night in a Walgreen's parking lot, she is told by the security guard that is she in violation of parking rules. Already we see that rules, codes of conduct, and laws benefit those who are only willing to shop and spend. The young clerk at the store who catches Wendy shoplifting reports her zealously and with a rigid allegiance to rules and authority. He is the glue that holds a society together that keeps people like Wendy out. When Wendy finally finds Lucy at a foster home, she comes to the heartbreaking realization that her dog will be better off with a new family. Even her relationships with her sister is fraught with monetary exchange. During a phone call to her sister and brother-in-law, Wendy is promptly disregarded by her sibling with the stated fact that she is unable to loan her any money.

There are moments however when this rate of exchange is subverted, in which characters act not out of monetary gain but through the simple goodness of human exchange. Ironically, the security guard who tells Wendy to move her car out of the parking lot turns out to be the most humane of all the people she meets in Portland. He helps her move her stalled car out onto the side street, advises her on where to go shopping, and even loans her his cell phone so she can keep in touch with the local pound. The relationship that quietly develops between these two offer a bright ray of hope in so much building despair.

Reichardt is able to explore so many complex issues precisely because she allows the story to unfold slowly through characters and actions. The movie is rather slow-paced but is thoroughly engaging. When it was released, Wendy and Lucy was compared to such Italian neorealist films as Umberto D, which likewise tells the story of an old man, stricken in poverty, and his relationship to his dog Flag. Yet unlike neorealism, Wendy and Lucy is steeped far more in experimental filmmaking. The cinematography is slow and deliberate, capturing the minute details of Wendy’s world, lingering on wide and medium shots of nearly empty streets and roads, the inside of a grocery store, a jail cell, then closing in on tighter shots of fruits in stalls, of fingerprints being taken, to reveal how claustrophobic and alienating this environment is. There is no musical score. Rather the ambient noises of traffic, wind blowing through trees, footsteps on gravel express Wendy’s loneliness. Michelle Williams gives an understated performance that quietly builds in frustration as the story moves forward. She portrays Wendy as a young woman numbed by society, on the cusp of cynicism and jadedness. Her only trusting friendship is with Lucy. The emotional bond she forms with the dog snaps when she realizes she must give her up. Williams portrays this scene with the kind of quiet restraint that gives the film its emotional strength.

Recently, Reichardt’s latest film, Meek's Cutoff along with Terence Malick's Tree of Life, has stirred a debate among film critics about whether watching such movies is the equivalent of eating your vegetables: movies that are good for you but are boring as hell! I won’t delve into that debate since I haven’t seen any of the movies mentioned, but I do think it’s important to point out the difference between boredom and slow-moving. Boredom is a total disengagement of the things around you. A film or novel can be slow-paced and not be boring. Rather only the subject for what ever reason can fail to engage its viewers or readers. Wendy and Lucy is not such a film. I failed to not care about Wendy’s plight. We’ve all been in the situation where our dreams or goals are thwarted time again by bad luck. And we’ve all experienced times when we’ve had to sacrifice the things and people we love. Wendy and Lucy is one such exploration into the human condition, beautiful, quiet, and evocative in its vision of love and sacrifice.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Simon & Schuster Releases New Book Trailer on YouTube

In the last couple of years, book trailers announcing the release of new novels have been huge. Jonathan Franzen and Gary Shteyngart, to name but two, have released one for their latest fiction. To be honest, I haven't paid much attention to them until now. Simon and Schuster released a trailer on Youtube recently for the fiction debut novel Bed by David Whitehouse, and I thought it looked intriguing. In fact, a little too intriguing, at least visually speaking. It fact it looks more like a music video. So it's a little disconcerting at the end when it announces the arrival of Whitehouse's debut later this August. Still it's pretty good, even if it doesn't tell you exactly what the novel is about. The story, by the way, deals with two brothers, one of whom decides not to leave his bed on his twenty-fifth birthday.

Book trailers are an inventive way to get readers interested, especially in a crowded field of TV, movies, video games, and the Internet vying for public attention. Hopefully this will pay out for Whitehouse. Check out the trailer below: